Friday, December 07, 2007

King Size Comic, An Australian Classic

Aren't these a pair of stunners? I managed to pick them up for a pittance, along with a handful of vintage Panther comic books, and if I told you what they cost me you'd just scream.

I'll freely admit that my knowledge of these books is fairly limited, but here's what I do know. According to Kevin Patrick's excellent article on Buck Rogers, King Size Comic was "a giant 2/- (two shilling) magazine, produced by the Cleveland Publishing Company of Sydney under its Apache Comics imprint. Apart from Buck Rogers, King Size Comic featured reprints of various American and Australian comic book features, ranging from crime (T-Man) to westerns (El Lobo, Tim Holt) and science-fiction (Silver Starr), before it, too, ceased publication in 1959."*

Not much is it? However the best information about Cleveland Publishing comes from John Ryan's excellent and invaluable book, Panel By Panel. On page 207 of that book Ryan discusses Cleveland briefly, and I again quote;

"Cleveland Press were publishers of western, detective, and romance paperbacks when they decided to enter the comic publishing field late in 1955. Against the advice of his fellow publishers the owner of Cleveland Press, Jack Atkins, was determined to have a comic on the market bearing his company's name. He acquired the rights to a radio serial, The Twilight Ranger, which had been written by Michael Noonan and then asked Chatto to illustrate it. The first issue of the comic appeared in October bearing a full-colour half tone cover illustration and costing 9d. The comic was tied in with a series of competitions that offered such prizes as interstate air trips, bicycles, cameras and tennis racquets. It was an impressive debut for the masked cowboy who was derivative of a number of US comics. Because of the high overheads, the comic did not make money and Atkins gambled with the seventh issue by increasing the price to 1s. and making it full-colour throughout. The comic failed, though an eighth story was published at a later date.

"Determined to stay in the comics field, Atkins asked Chatto to create another character which resulted in another cowboy comic, El Lobo - The Man from Nowhere. Again with a full-colour half tone cover, El Lobo first appeared late in 1956 and ran through 23 issues. The comic was also responsible for introducing the Cleveland trademark, King Size Comics. Also in the late 'sixties Cleveland published Clancy of the Overflow drawn by Hal English. Although the lively outback adventures of Clancy showed English at his best, the title lasted less than half a dozen issues. Deciding to use reprint material, Cleveland introduced their 100-page King Size Comics in 1956. As well as reprinting such material as Frank Frazetta's Johnny Comet, there were comics from the E. C. New Direction list, Yager's Buck Rogers and a number of local comics. New Silver Starr comics were drawn to add to the reprints of those that had been previously published by Young's Merchandising as well as a mixture of new stories and reprints of Twilight Ranger, Clancy, and El Lobo. King Size Comics lasted until late in 1959.

"Cleveland Press also published a pocketbook-size Silhouette series of western, romance and war comics. Many of the covers were drawn by Pitt and the bulk of the comics were drawn by Chatto, English and Wilkinson. One of the last major publishers to attempt to foster original comics, the odds were against Cleveland Press from the beginning. They entered the field just prior to the advent of television and only a few years before the lifting of Import Restrictions would see the market swamped with US comic books."**

So there you have it. Both books sport lovely covers and some very impressive Keith Chatto and Stanley Pitt artwork, along with the reprints. My own research leads me to believe that issue #23 is actually the first issue (and if you can work that out then you're doing well) and that seventeen issues in total were released. That also makes #28 the sixth issue in reality, a decent enough find for a mere $5.00 each (yep, that's what I paid). The King Size Annual would be a definite prize, clocking in at a total of 340 pages, you could be assured that it'd be value for money, even if it did reprint previously published material (the Annual merely combined previously published issues). The main thing that these comics show is that the local talent of the time, Stanley Pitt, Keith Chatto and Hal English in particular, was just as good, and in a lot of cases better, than their more commonly known American counterparts. This is very evident in issue #28 where at least one Matt Baker Phantom Lady story, Satan's Seal, exists (other Phantom Lady stories in this volume, Television Spies and The Old Shell Game, are probably also Matt Baker). As good as it is the Baker material looks pedestrian when compared to Stanley Pitt at his best in the lead off Silver Starr story, The Flame World.

Issue #23 showcases a magnificent Keith Chatto splash page (I know, I know, I'm going backwards), and the resulting story virtually overshadows the rest of the issue, and that includes a vintage Al Williamson 'sandal epic' dated 1954 and a Wally Wood Sir Geoffrey story. Add to those another Stanley Pitt Silver Starr and a Hal English Clancy story and you can easily see why these would have been considered to be the pick of the bunch at the time of publication. With Chatto, Pitt and English representing the Australian side of things, and Williamson and Wood flying the flag for the Americans this makes for one of the most impressive Australian comics I've seen in many a moon from an art perspective. Plus that painted cover only tops it all off. I doubt anyone could have ever asked for a better first issue in a comic book anywhere.

So how hard are these puppies to find? Damn good question. Not that long ago Keven Patrick quoted from a Stanley Pitt interview where Pitt claimed that Cleveland Publishing had printed 125,000 copies of a full-colour edition of Silver Starr in the late 1950s, but only released 50,000 copies into the marketplace***. This makes sense as one thing I've discovered by speaking to people is that more often than not Australian publishers printed more than they could ever hope to sell, resulting in issues being run out as showbag fillers. In the case of King Size Comics I would hazard a guess and say that they'd have cost too much to given away, so the bulk of the unsold returns would have been either pulped or 'rebadged'. There is evidence of this with the existence of the King Size Annual, which, as previously noted, was a combination of previous issues of unsold King Size Comics. I've had a quick peek on the internet and can't find a single copy for sale, however they do surface on eBay from time to time, so if you see one at a good price then pick it up. I doubt you'll be disappointed.

------------------------
* Buck Rogers Australian Orbit by Kevin Patrick, 15/10/2007, OzComics.com
** Panel By Panel, by John Ryan, published 1979 Cassell Australia Ltd, page 207
*** Australian Comics – A 1960 Snapshot by Kevin Patrick, 02/11/2007

1 comment:

Kevin Patrick said...

Daniel - As I said in my email to you, I'm green with envy that you scored these 'King Size Comic' beauties - and at an unbelievable price, to boot!

Roger Morrison's 1997 price guide states that the series did begin with issue #23, as you state, while issues #23-32, 36 & 39 contain Australian-drawn material. However, I'm not sure if there were issues released after #39 (something which Morrison fails to clarify in his 'bare-bones' title listings)

Hal English apparently drew the cover to King Size #26, and may have done others in the series.

I can't prove this categorically, but the cover for #23 looks as if it could be the work of Carl Lyons, an Australian comics artist who also worked as a freelance cover artist for Cleveland's line of western pulp novelettes.

Other covers in the series could well have been drawn by Cleveland's other freelance illustrators, esp. those working on their line of war/western pulp novels. Oddly enough, given that Stanley Pitt was already producing some knock-out painted covers for the American Science Fiction magazine/booklet series at this time (published by Malian Press, Sydney), it's strange he never got the chance to do painted covers depicting his own SF hero, Silver Starr, on the King Size Comic. They would've been stunning, no doubt!

And, yes, Chatto did some gorgeous work on the Twilight Ranger series - the painted covers he did for the solo TR comic from Cleveland are just amazing to look at. Only surpassed by his work on El Lobo - The Man from Nowhere, which has to be one of my all-time favourite Australian comics from that era.