Boys' comics of the 1940s - The Wonderful World of William Wilson

23 September 2014 ( 23 September 2014 )

Novelist Tom McNab remembers the comic heroes of his youth.



Boys’ comic papers have always thrived on 'supermen', although no British paper seriously attempted to copy the American adventures of the bespectacled Clark Kent who regularly ducks into a cupboard to emerge as the gravity-defying Superman.  

Tarzan the ape man 

Superman’s British counterparts were the sluggish, earthbound Morgyn the Mighty and Strang the Terrible.  Both were pale copies of Tarzan but bore the same relationship to Tarzan as Sexton Blake did to Sherlock Holmes.  Both Morgyn and Strang wandered about savage but unspecified areas of the earth, nations which the 'wind of change' had apparently not yet reached.  Both (they were virtually identical in looks) spent most of their time taming savage tribes and hurling rocks and lions to unrecorded distances.  In the main, Morgyn and Strang appeared only in the picture-story series which featured on the outer covers, and must really be considered the 'bit' players of boys’ papers.  

Another, more intelligent, superman was H.K. Rodd, the 'Wonder Man'.  Rodd’s sporting successes were the result of an experiment conducted by a professor on Rodd and his brother, who were identical twins.  He was taken by the professor to a remote Scottish island and put through a series of unspecified exercises, whilst his twin was left to be educated in a more formal manner.  Needless to say, Rodd became a master of all physical and intellectual skills, although the intellectual side of his abilities was  rarely demonstrated.  He became the world’s top racing-driver and the best cricketer of all time.  As a soccer commentator he could predict a move five minutes before it happened. Despite his many successes, Rodd somehow failed to capture my imagination. There was something too remote about him, but he lacked the Holmesian qualities to make this remoteness interesting.

But there was no lack of intellect in this world of fantasy-sport.  'The Champion Nobody Knew' featured the brilliant Pearson, who showed that students of the science of boxing would do well to study boys’ papers. '“I know you worked out your fight with Loup Jackson by algebra,” I said. “Exactly,” replied Pearson.  “Given certain known facts I was able to find an equation that indicated how and when I should beat Jackson. For instance, if X is the weight of a punch and Y is its velocity, you can estimate its effect by simple equation.”'

William Wilson 

Head and shoulders above all of the supermen of comic papers was William Wilson. He could run 100yd in nine seconds, high jump seven feet (carrying a 16lb shot. Mainly for balance), and trot a mile in three and a half minutes, all at the age of 150.  Clad in his black Victorian bathing-costume, lank hair flopping across his pale forehead, Wilson strode across the pages of the Wizard for over fifteen years.  It was from the Wilson series that I first learnt the meaning of the word 'coma'. For  after all his great efforts, Wilson would immediately fall into a coma, during which his heart would stop beating.  Not unnaturally, this sometimes led spectators to believe that he was dead, and I remember that he was buried alive at least once, before it was realised that this was only to be expected.

Wilson’s age requires some explanation.  In the first series, Wilson suddenly appeared in a pre-war international meeting at White City, ran onto the track and thrashed the best milers in the world.  From then on, he appeared for Britain in every conceivable event.  From the beginning Wilson exuded an air of mystery.  For one thing, he had an astonishing knowledge of athletics history. Thus, when someone mentioned that an athlete had run a world’s record in 9.3sec for 100 yd Wilson would interject, “No Simpson, The Norwich Butcher, ran 9.2 sec back in 1851”. And, sure enough, it was so.

The first series ended with Wilson preparing to climb Mount Everest barefoot without oxygen, or indeed climbing equipment. He was later posted as lost over the Channel during the Battle of Britain.  The second series, in diary-form, purported to tell The True Story of William Wilson. Wilson, it turned out, had been born at Stayling in Yorkshire in 1795.  One of the 18th century’s seven-stone weaklings, he left home to live out on the moor and toughen himself up.  Wilson’s main form of resistance exercise lay in making unsuccessful attempts to lift the Grieve Stone, a massive hunk of rock which a certain Mr. Grieve had lifted centuries before, dying immediately afterwards.  This must have been isometric exercise in its first primitive form, for it was years before Wilson raised it from the ground. Not surprisingly, this  proved to be the occasion of his first coma.

The elixir of life 

It was at this time that Wilson met Matthew, an old hermit who had been living on the moor upwards of 200 years.  Wilson first began to sense that Matthew was no ordinary man when he started to prattle on about his happy days at the Court of Elizabeth.  Eventually, Matthew confided in Wilson that he had discovered the elixir of life, and that he was over 200 years old.  Shortly afterwards, the roof of his cave fell in on him, killing him, but not before he had entrusted the elixir-recipe to Wilson.  This was an “eye of toad, tongue of frog” affair and involved the young Wilson travelling all over the world securing the ingredients.  This proved the material for a long and exciting series of stories.  In later series, Wilson appeared at the end of World War II calling himself, for some unknown reason, Greene, and dedicated to  training a cripple to become world mile record-holder.  Later, he went to Africa as an emissary of the Foreign Office to quash a black uprising led by an athlete-king called Chaka.

The originator of the Wilson stories, Gilbert Lawford Dalton, informed me that Wilson was created from a series of real-life personalities: “His long, raking stride came from the Australian sprinter Jack Donaldson, the ‘Blue Streak’, who achieved a world 220-yard record at Shawfield Park  in 1912.  Wilson was essentially a loner, and this aspect of his character came from an old harrier with whom I used to run at Shettleston Harriers, Andrew Fleming. There are also traces in Wilson of Dunky Wright, that resolute Scots marathon runner of the twenties and thirties.  The idea of making Wilson’s first public appearance a mile race came from seeing Albert Hill equal the British mile record in a race at Celtic Sports.  He did this in a handicap race, threading his way through over 100 competitors.  So Wilson burst upon an unsuspecting world in a mile race”.  Wilson gripped the imagination of successive generations of  schoolboys.  Why?  Possibly because the series was extremely well-written.  Possibly because Wilson was every boy’s fantasy-figure – the slight intense lad who could take on anyone at any event.  Wilson had the strength of Hercules and the mystery of Sherlock Holmes.  His stories still read well.

Comic book heroes 

The proletarian counterpart of Wilson was Alf Tupper.  Tupper (the very name evokes visions of the tousled little harrier) was more limited in athletic range than Wilson, being  a middle-distance runner.  Like Wilson and most other comic book heroes, he was almost immediately divested of his parents, so that he could devote his talents to running.  From the beginning, he ran into trouble with the local athletics authorities at Granton Hall.  This improbable club was run by Commander Churcher, a kindly fellow who was constantly troubled by Tupper’s inexplicable outbursts.  These explosions were invariably caused by Alf’s disagreements with some of the more snobbish members of the club, and Alf invariably came off worst.  So back he would trudge to the leaky old railway shack where he had made his home, pausing on the way to buy a packet of fish and chips, his staple diet.

Tupper was a spiky but lovable character.  Constantly misunderstood, he always turned up trumps, simply because of his sheer guts and courage.  Unlike Wilson, he was occasionally beaten but he always profited by his defeats.  Again, unlike Wilson, he placed great stress on training, which appeared to consist of running as hard as he could for as long as possible.

Playing football 

Athletics lends itself better to heroes than do team games, but football was  featured widely in boy’s papers and has its own roll of honour. I remember well the first chapters of Cannon-ball Kidd. The pre-war members of a professional team, now middle-aged, return after the war to their ruined ground to find a young lad shooting footballs into barrels with astonishing accuracy.  This lad is Kidd; and his ability stimulates the veterans to reform their team. “Thud! Time and again from different angles he slammed the ball smack into the barrel.  Then suddenly he became aware of his audience. A gasp broke from Billy and he snatched up the ball and bolted, “Kidd”, shouted Raith, “Come back!”  “You know him?” Dallas exclaimed delightedly. “I should say so,” chuckled Raith. “ He’s a lad in my class at South Street and his name is Billy Kidd.” “Some kid,” Danny muttered his appreciation. Doc broke his long silence with a remark that was bang on the point. “A Cannonball Kid,” he said.

The first series was delightful, with the old players using their wiles to 'feed' their powerful young centre-forward. The later series fared less well, when the old players were quietly discarded.  Soccer stores were usually high on drama but low on tactical details.  In a post- war series a team came back from a war prison camp, where they had been practising for four years and entered the English League. Their tactics were formidable,  The whole team, goalkeeper expected, lined up across the field in a straight line in a 10 : 1 formation and when they received the ball flicked it from one end of the line to the other,  They were never beaten.  If their defence lacked depth – so also did the series, which eventually fell back on hypnosis, gypsy curses and train crashes, the everyday fare of professional soccer-players in boys’ adventure stories.

A favourite stock character was the 'mystery player' who usually bore a remarkable resemblance to a star player of the early 19th century.  Such a character, Pickford, featured in The Goal Maker.  Pickford, who was over sixty years old, shed his years on the soccer field and returned to his old age when safely back in his caravan home.  The boxing story, The Iron Man, followed similar lines.  In this story the hero was a muscular marvel who bore a remarkable resemblance to a certain Dickie Brooks, a young boxer who had been broken years before by the crooked manager, Mike Palova.  Needless to say, The Iron Man successfully devoted himself to the downfall of Palova.

Star players 

The football series which provided the most solid information on soccer tactics was undoubtedly It’s Goals That Count, the autobiography of Nick Smith of Redburn Rovers.  Although this series was surprisingly strong on the tactical side, it was far enough from the realities of soccer to cast Smith, the captain of the side, as team-selector and coach, with the manager, Elton, making only a few shamefaced appearances. Sheepdogs and football are a rare mixture, but this was provided in the Limp Along Leslie series. Leslie, a young shepherd, was lame (this defect apparently turned out to be an advantage in swerving with the ball) but eventually succeeded in becoming a star player.  The series divided itself evenly between Leslie’s  football career and his rearing of a champion sheep-dog and it provided a refreshing contrast to more conventional themes. 
 

The most originally-dressed soccer team was undoubtedly that captained by a certain Baldy Hogan, of blessed memory.  His team wore jerseys and stockings bearing large concentric circles.  This was because their gypsy goalkeeper was colour-blind and could not distinguish between two teams wearing striped jerseys.  This gypsy, although undoubtedly of great ability, was more trouble that he was worth.  On one occasion he brought his caravan on to the field and on another refused to play because of a witch’s curse.  Baldy himself (bearing a remarkable resemblance to Sir Alf Ramsey) looked at least fifty at the beginning of the series but played brilliantly in every position on the field.  Ten years later he was still there.

Facing the Nazis 

Every summer, cricket duly made its appearance but few of the cricket characters remain in the memory.  Such players as 'Willie Wallop, the bowlers’ nightmare' and 'Buster (big-mouth) Barnett'have long since passed into oblivion, as have their pre-war predecessors, The Blind Bowler and The Blind Batsman.  The most prominent was possibly Rob Higdon of It’s Runs That Count and It’s Fielding That Counts, summer versions of the meatier soccer story, It’s Goals That Count.  Possibly county and representative cricket, with its more casual pace and relative lack of conflict, provided less happy material for the writers.  Certainly, the game produced no Baldy Hogans or Cannonball Kidds.

Boxing naturally provided excellent material for comic-papers.  The most endearing character was undoubtedly Rockfist Rogan of the Champion.  Until 1940 Rogan, an RAF fighter-pilot, featured in World War I stories.  Suddenly, without any noticeable change in age, he was whisked into World War II to face the Nazis.  Rogan’s status was always doubtful.  The ethos which pervaded the stories was undoubtedly amateur but Rogan’s ability (he was never, to my mind, beaten) was of professional calibre.  No one could say that his career was without incident.  One story featured Rogan’s opponent being whisked from the ring by a mad elephant; another showed a fight being stopped by two airmen dropping on the ring in a balloon; yet another only a few weeks later showed a contest being stopped by a German parachutist floating into the ring with a sub-machine gun.

Cricket in the forefront 

Besides Rogan, all other boxers were ephemeral characters but they had in common the fact that they were as far from the real world of professional boxing as it is possible to be.  Most of the contests were essentially schoolboy punch-ups, remote from the gory world of 'fixes' and punch-drunk pugilists.  There was even a series centred on a boxing match-maker, innocently titled Hooky Harris, fight fixer!  Other sports featured fitfully in the Champion.  I seem to remember Johnny Speed riding around the rim of the speedway safety-fence to victory for Beldon Hawks.  And did not Johnny Fleetfoot win the Mediterranean Grand National, scooping up an Arabian crook on the way?  And what of Kalgan, the Jungle Wonder, enjoying a game of water-polo with a group of crocodiles?  Perhaps it is not too surprising that we have heard little of Kalgan in recent years.

From the type of sport covered it is not too difficult to see what kind of reader the comic-papers have been aiming at.  Rugby and Hockey, until relatively recently the sports of grammar and public schools, have never, to my knowledge, featured strongly in boys’ papers, whose main team sports have always been soccer and cricket.  

Sporting gimmicks 

Few of the writers showed much knowledge of the sports they described (the athletics series being notable exceptions) and tended to lean heavily on all manner of gimmicks.  I remember in theChampion a team, short of footballs, which practised ball-control with bladders and another story when the team’s centre-forward arrived, in full soccer gear, by parachute.  The Man Tamer from Muskrat featured a battle between a boxer and a Red Indian, complete with tomahawk.  There are no prizes for guessing the eventual winner.  And what of Hurry Scurry, the Demon Racer escaping by motor-bike from masked crooks (all crooks had little black masks in those days) along the top of a wall?

Perhaps in their lack of technical detail, post-war comic-papers accurately reflected the nature of their audiences, for schoolboys have little interest in the technicalities of sport.  On the other hand, they wish to be entertained and royally entertained they were by the sports heroes of these comic papers.  One noticeable feature of the sports story (and indeed of all boys’ paper stories) is the almost complete absence of women.  Even mothers are rarely mentioned, except to note their deaths in the early chapters.  Of girlfriends and wives there is no mention, for this is a man’s world with a vengeance.  Even an anti-smoking advertisement which was obviously aimed at teenagers showed girls only grudgingly lurking in the background in a coffee-bar.

A female free zone 

Although their attitudes towards the opposite sex were similar, there were two distinct types of boys’ papers.  One was typified by the D.C. Thomson group, consisting of WizardRoverHotspur and Adventure.  The other type had only one exponent, The Champion.  Though both types had their roots in the early 1920s, they followed separate paths from the beginning.  The Champion adopted the approach of The Gem and Magnet, even to the type of paper used, while the D.C. Thomson group developed a completely new type of comic-paper.  The Champion lived in the world of Greyfriars and its sport (soccer was called “footer”) reflected a pale version of the public school ethos.  Papers like The Wizard were more adventurous and outward-looking and, although their sports stories were as far from the real world of sport as those of the The Champion, its heroes were notre-constituted public-school types.

An unwillingness to reflect or come to terms with the real world of sport was common to all boys’ papers.  Money was rarely mentioned and the change from the “soccer slaves” of the 1930s to the highly- paid gladiators of the 1960s was not reflected in their pages.  The brutal realities of boxing were never exposed and the shamateurism of top amateur athletes were not even hinted at. And there was no sign of female athletes at any point.

Olympics 

Boys’ papers are as far from us now as Dickens was for me in my youth. So sadly, Rockfist Rogan has gone for ever and so has Cannonball Kidd

Baldy Hogan has not been seen for years and I trust he received a solid benefit.  Goodness knows, he deserved it, as some recognition of his success in leading phantom teams through non-existent leagues. I am sure that an ancient Limp Along Leslie still hobbles on  somewhere, though it comes as a surprise that a 217-year-old Wilson made no appearance at the 2012 Olympics. The world of boys’ paper sport was basically a world not of men but of boys.  Boys running miles in under four minutes or scoring last-minute goals in cup-finals; boys cocking a snook at authority or smashing the school bully into oblivion.  All without blood, all without graft, all without corruption. If this was a world of fantasy, then it was harmless fantasy, one which I was all the better for having entered.

Tom McNab is the bestselling author of Flanagan's Run, available from all good bookshops and Amazon.







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