AP/Fleetway
A Potted History

 

A Brief Timeline

1888: Harmsworth launches Answers
1890
: Harmsworth launches Comic Cuts
1901
: Harmsworth starts AP
1920: AP launches Film Fun
1949
: AP buys Allen (Comet and Sun publisher)
1959
: AP bought by the Mirror Group and re-named Fleetway
1959: Hulton's (Eagle publisher) acquired by Odhams Press
1960: Odhams renamed Longacre Press
1961: Mirror Group takes-over Longacre Press and George Newnes
1963: Mirror Group renamed International Publishing Corporation (IPC)
1968: IPC Magazines formed
1987: All comics collected into Fleetway and sold to Robert Maxwell
1991: Egmont buys the Fleetway divison.

The Potted History of Fleetway

Comic Cuts was published each week for 63 years, finally finishing with issue 3,006 on 12 September 1953.

In 1888 a Victorian gentleman called Alfred Charles William Harmsworth launched a magazine called Answers to Correspondants, (Answers for short) which, while having nothing to do with comics, made him enough money to start a new title called Comic Cuts (17 May 1890).

Answers was produced from a small room on the first floor of 26 Paternoster Square in London: later moving to Tudor Street and then into 108 Fleet Street. These moves were entirely due to the expansion in the business of the those early days.

Comic Cuts was the first halfpenny comic paper (half the price of its rivals), and included cartoons and strips mainly taken from American humour papers: so popular was it, that by 1892 Harmsworth could boast a readership of two and half million a week! With the money Harmsworth started a string of juvenile papers, including Illustrated Chips, The Wonder, Funny Wonder, Puck, Merry and Bright, and the short lived Firefly, and also introduced the idea of original comic art, as new printing methods, notably roto-gravure, saw the end of the old wood-block technique. Simply put, printing was easier. In 1901 with a readership that AP proudly touted as being from cradle to grave, they opened a huge printing works at Lavingdon Street, Southwark, Gravesend. Here their first experiments were carried out in colour printing. The results can be seen on the extravagant and beautiful covers of Rainbow.

However, the "classical" English tradition for juvenile literature at this time was the Story Paper, not the Comic. Since the late 18th century various magazines aimed at the juvenile or young adult market had been published: some for reasons of "improvement", but by far the more popular were the Penny Dreadfuls with their garish covers and tales of murder and daring-do featuring the likes of Jack Harkaway, Charles Peace (notorious burglar), Dance of Death (about the gallows), and general murder and mayhem.

An original Ben Turpin and Charlie Conklin rough for Film Fun by William (Bill) Radford: circa 1927. Note blue tick of approval.

Harmsworth declared war on the Penny Dreadfuls of his rivals and fired back with clean and wholesome titles like Marvel (1893), Union Jack (1894), Pluck (1894) and The Boys' Friend (1895). They all featured good clean literature (pirates, monsters of the deep, tales of the Empire, desert islands etc.). This tradition of written story papers with a couple of spot art illustrations continued right up until the paper shortages of the 1940's killed off many of the titles. Click here to see a list of the AP/Fleetway Story Papers.

In 1901, Harmsworth's many publishing business' were brought together and called The Amalgamated Press (AP). Harmsworth went on to found the Daily Mirror newspaper, and eventually became owner of The Times newspaper, he was later knighted becoming Lord Northcliffe. On his death in 1922, The Amalgamated Press was one of the largest publishers in the world, and they remained faithful to their original tenet: they were also the largest publishers of childrens comics.

By 1925 the building that was to become known as the home of the AP was nearing completion - Fleetway House, Farringdon Street - and it was from there that their many products were created, and to where the many artists submitted their work.

The period that is generally looked upon as the Golden Age of AP's comic production lies in that time between the two wars. During this period an enormous number of comics were produced by talented (and little recognised artists) such as Harry and Reg Parlett, George and Terry Wakefield, Harry and Albert (Charlie) Pease, Roy Wilson, Don Newhouse H.S. Foxwell, Bertie Brown and under the editorship of men like Stanley Gooch.

Like any other company, in order to remain profitable, you have to learn to adapt to what's going on around you. This AP did quite well. For instance the coming of silent film and the plethora of new stars that were exciting the population led to them starting the comic Film Fun (17 January 1920) and four months later Kinema Comic featuring the comic adventures of various screen stars such as Monty Banks, Ben Turpin, and with time, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy. Kinema Comic merged with Film Fun in 1932.

Derek Eyles Buffalo Bill cover from Comet Nr. 496 (1958). Original board

The first editor of Film Fun was Frederick George Cordwell, who insisted that his artists come up with the ideas for one of the many character strips featured in the comic. These were done as roughs and then sent to Fleetway House, where Cordwell would either accept or destroy depending upon circumstances. If accepted, the original rough (usually marked "OK" or ticked with a blue pencil) would be returned to the artist with a perumptory note. The artist would then turn his rough into a finished artboard for publishing.

On the basis that if it works once, it will probably work again, the success of Film Fun would lead AP in time to release Radio Fun (15 October 1938) and the not so successful TV Fun (19 September 1953).

On the verge of the second world war, AP released another comic that would change forever the way that British children would view comics - its name was Knock-out, but it lost the hyphen within a year to become Knockout. This comic featured wonderful artwork by the likes of Eric Parker, Derek Eyles, H.M. Brock, Heath Robinson and Jesus Blasco and the emphasis was firmly on adventure. Knockout featured such strips as Sexton Blake, Dick Turpin, and historical adaptations like The Black Arrow and Capt. Flame by academy artist Sep Scott. It is interesting to note that many of the characters used by AP in their comics, originally featured in the story papers. Billy Bunter started in Magnet, whilst Sexton Blake, Dick Turpin and Buffalo Bill had all appeared in the story papers at one time or another.

Colin Merritt original board. Buffalo Bill - Comet Nr. 344 (1955)

Please remember though, that AP did not publish just children's comics: they continued to publish the juvenile story papers, as well as magazines and newspapers covering a wide variety of subjects for adults, and they were always on the look-out to pick up small or ailing publishers. In 1942 Amalgamated Press took control of US publisher Conde Nast Publications on the founders death. Conde Nast were the publishers of such well known fashion magazine titles as Vogue and Vanity Fair. In 1959 AP re-sold Conde Nast Publications for a profit.

So it was that two of the most popular comic titles of the 1950's were acquired by AP, Comet and Sun. Both these titles were actually started by J.B. Allen just after the war, but when AP took over J.B. Allen's titles in 1949 they re-vamped the strips (reducing the size of the comic along the way) and exchanged the "funnies" strips of Allen with such great adventure strips as Battler Britton, Billy the Kid, Robin Hood, Kit Carson and Dick Turpin.

In 1949 AP released in Australia a series of comics in a standard American comic size, with black and white interiors. These were entitled Cowboy Comics and featured Kit Carson, Buck Jones, Billy the Kid and Tim Holt. The sales in Austrialia encouraged them to release the series in the UK, however there was a problem - no available printing presses. The odd size of the UK comic (5.5 inches x 7 inches or 13.5cms x 17.6cms) was governed by the fact that the only available printing press was that used by a story paper called the Sexton Blake Library - which had the same size. Another "revolution" for its time was that the Cowboy Comics had 68 pages and could accomodate either 2-3 short stories or one complete one. Taking already popular characters such as Kit Carson and Buck Jones AP soon realised that it had a success on its hands. Over the ensuing years these characters would be joined by the Kansas Kid, Davy Crockett and some odd appearances by The Cisco Kid, Lucky Lannigan and Buffalo Bill.

Thriller Picture Library Nr. 255 (1959) - Robin Hood, Liitle John and the evil Prince John by John Millar Watt. Original board

Some of the artists that contributed to Cowboy Comics (Cowboy Picture Library), included: Colin Merrett, Derek Eyles, Geoff Campion, Reg Bunn, C. E. Montford, Graham Coton, José-Luis Salinas, Tom Laidler, Ron Embleton, Peter Sutherland, Adam Horne, Colin Milburn, D. Gale, Gerry Embleton, R. Charles Roylance, Jesus Blasco, Bill Lacey, Alberto Salinas, Robert Forrest, Eric Parker, W. Bryce-Hamilton, Hugh McNeill, Alessandro Biffignandi, Cyril Holloway, Frank Bolle, Roland Davies, Robert MacGillivray, H.C. Milburn, Patrick Nicolle, Edward Drury, Philip Mendoza, Joe Colquhoun, Septimus E. Scott, Vic Anderson, Selby Donnison, Tony Weare, George Parlett, Harry Bishop, Fred Meagher, Ian Kennedy, Armando Bonato, Terry Aspin, Franco Bignotti, Jorge Macabich, Peter Gallant, Virgilio Muzzi, Fred Holmes, Michael Moorcock, Ivo Pavone, Sergio Tarquinio, Frejo, Carlos V. Roume, Martin Salvador, Alberto Breccia, and Arturo del Castillo.

The success of Knockout, Sun and Comet, as well as Cowboy Comics, soon prompted AP to start two more "Library" comics: Thriller Comics (later to become Thriller Picture Library) featuring historical swashbuckling adventures of The Three Musketeers, Dick Turpin, Robin Hood, Claude Duval, as well as interpretations of classical novels, whilst Super Detective Library featured mystery and detective adventures with Bulldog Drummond, The Saint, Sherlock Holmes (from a dissapointing US strip), and, creme de la creme, the space sleuth Rick Random drawn by a young artist called Ron Turner.

Ron Embleton cover depicting The Grendall for Look and Learn. Original board

The 1950's and early 60's were undoubtably the hay days of AP. The library sized comics (published at a rate varying between 2-4 issues a month) led to other popular (and as it turned out, very long running) titles being released particularly in the war genre. This, and the continued popularity of their weekly comics, led to a shortage of available British artists to fill the gap. Thus it was that comic artists were employed from all over Europe and South America, mostly, but not exclusively, via the art agencies such as D'Ami.

As the decade of the 1950's moved into its close the buying, merging and selling of publishing houses increased. The reasons for this are simple enough, there were many titles on the market all vying for the attention of the consumer - who's pocket money was limited and had other calls upon it such as Lucky Bags and toys! TV was also starting to make in-roads into children's activities and reading was, even then, beginning to wain, although it would be another 40 years until computer games and DVDs would undermine the weekly sales of comics. AP was bought up by the Mirror Group in 1959 - and in the same year AP's rival publishing company, Hulton (publisher of Dan Dare's flagship Eagle) was taken over by Odhams Press. One year later Odhams was renamed Longacre Press (1960). One year further on (1961) the Mirror Group (which now included AP) took over Longacre Press and with it the title Eagle and ownership of Dan Dare.

Capt. Hurricane star of Valiant (19 August 1967). Original board by Geoff Campion.

In 1963 the Mirror Group was renamed International Publishing Corporation Ltd (IPC): so now IPC owned the title to such classic comics as Buster, Eagle, Harold Hare's Own Paper, Lion, Mirabelle, and a host of other comics, as well as such diverse strips as Dan Dare, Capt. Condor (who had started as rivals by different publishers), The Steel Claw, Capt. Hurricane and Jack and Jill. New comic titles were started, old comic titles were merged or ceased altogether. The name of Fleetway was still used to identify the comics magazine publishing arm of IPC, although some comics were published in IPC's name.

One comic, and probably the last comic title to be produced by IPC, was destined to be Britain's best selling modern comic - 2000AD which started in 1977 and featured the revived Dan Dare and a new character Judge Dredd.

In 1987 all comics were collected into the Fleetway arm and sold to Robert Maxwell. In 1991, the Fleetway Division was bought from Maxwell by Egmont , who merged it with their own British based comic publishing division, London Editions, to create Fleetway Editions. At some point after 2002 the name of Fleetway Editions ceased to be used by Egmont on its publications. Fleetway House was re-named Fleetway Egmont House, and our story is all but over. 2000AD is now published by Egmont under license.

Glenn Fabry cover from Crisis Nr. 40 - original board.

It could be said that the AP/Fleetway era (encompassing a number of different name changes and amalgamations) lasted 110 years.

Things will never be the same again.

Notes:

If anyone would like to know more about the publishing empire founded by Alfred Harmsworth (Lord Northcliffe) they can do no better than consult the following books. Be warned though, there is no mention of the comics published by Harmsworth, just the newspaper empire:

The Romance of the Amalgamated Press compiled by George Dilnot (AP:1925)

Publish and be Damned! by Hugh Cudlipp (Dakers: 1953)

Newspapers: The Money and the Power by Simon Jenkins (Faber:1979)

Lords of Fleet Street: The Harmsworth Dynasty by Richard Bourne (Unwin Hyman: 1990)

 


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