‘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.
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 Revamp
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 from 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 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 24th 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 each week, in a single page strip set in 1940.
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 which appeared the week before the strip began featured Mr Ardupp and Miss Snobb, instead of the family Ardupp and the family Snobb, suggesting the final contents of the strip had 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 7th 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 7th 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 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 7th 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, Barry Moon, who finds a Genie in a dusty old bottle. In the issue dated 29 August, a humour strip titled The Fighting Three began, featuring the misadventures of three men: McGinty, Hambone and Weasel are travelling the world, trying to raise money to start their own construction company, but get into fights – and jail! – wherever they go. 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 strips were Kid Commandos, Threat of the Toymaker and The Pillater Peril.