Little Comics

As we all know, there’s a standard size for comics, which is approximately 15.5cm x 24cm (6” x 9.5” for those poor souls who don’t understand the metric system). But that’s only American comics, of course. And only current American comics, at that.

When I was growing up in the 1970s and 80s, the most common sizes for British comics were 21cm x 30cm (DC Thomson titles like Warlord, Bunty, Hotspur, Victor, Beano, Dandy, and so on), 23cm x 28cm (Fleetway / IPC titles such as 2000AD, Whoopee, Action, Jinty, Misty, Battle, and the like), and 20cm x 27cm (British Marvel reprints like Mighty World of Marvel, Spider-Man Comics Weekly, The Titans, Planet of the Apes, etc.).

The history of British comics does, of course, have a few outliers… The Beezer and The Topper, for example, were A3-sized publications (30cm x 42cm), and the legendary Eagle was 27cm x 35cm, which means that most copies that survive to this day have a crease across the middle.

(All sizes above are approximate, and are based on me measuring whichever issues I can reach right now without getting up from my chair. Although, in the interests of honesty and clarity, I confess that I did have to get up from my chair to find my ruler.)

But today I’m looking at smaller comics, those handy, pocket-size books that somehow never quite felt like real comics to me, which I admit as very unfair, but I was young and didn’t know any better.

First and foremost in the Little Comics category are the DC Thomson Digest titles (14cm x 17.5cm). Though often overlooked in the annals of British comics, especially when there are ground-breaking titles such as 2000AD and Warrior to gobble up all the news-inches (news-2.54cm for those unfamiliar with the Imperial measurement system), Commando is an absolute powerhouse. (Lots more info on the Commando website.)

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Since July 1961, DC Thomson has published 4,747 issues of Commando at the time of writing. To put that in perspective, that’s more than 8.5 times the number of issues of Fantastic Four, which began publication only a few months later.

Or, to put it another way, 4,747 issues of 68 pages each comes to 322,796 pages, not counting annuals and specials. Each issue is approximately 4mm thick, which means that a pile containing a complete run of Commando comics would be close to 19 metres tall (over 62 feet!). Or, if you laid them side-by-side, you’d be exhausted by the time you were done because that line would stretch 664.58 metres (2180.38 feet), plus some of them would probably blow away in the wind.

If you brought your complete set of Commando comics back in time to September 1st 1939 – the start of World War II, the era in which most Commando stories are set – and read two issues every single day, you’d only have reached issue 4,386 by the time the war ended. It’d take you another six months to get up to date.

Anyway… Commando was only one of a number of digest-sized comics published by DC Thomson. They also put out digest versions of Beano, Dandy and – much more up my street – their science fiction title Starblazer.

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Starblazer ran for an impressive 291 issues, from April 1979 to January 1991. Like Commando, it was a single-story-per-issue title, with most of the stories complete and self-contained (though there were some recurring characters and situations).

The 64 interior pages were black and white line art, with most pages containing only two or three panels, and the quality of the stories generally varied from not very good all the way up to not bad at all. As has always been traditional for DC Thomson titles, contributors weren’t credited, but some notable names include John Ridgway, Grant Morrison, John Smith, Mike McMahon, Colin MacNeil and the legendary Cam Kennedy.

Also like all other DC Thomson titles the lettering was typeset, not done by hand, which to me always makes the comics look rather dull: whenever a soldier stabbed an enemy with his bayonet and the enemy reacted with a cry of “Aieeeee!” I could never avoid picturing the typesetter counting out the Es to make sure there was the correct number.

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Never to be out-done, Marvel UK jumped on the tiny-comics bandwagon with their Pocket Book titles. Remember The Titans, about which I wrote a couple of weeks back? The one that turned the comic on its side and featured two reprinted pages for every comic pages? Well, the Marvel Pocket Books were a sort of off-shoot of that. At 14cm x 20.5cm, they were half the size of a standard Marvel reprint, and thus smaller than their original US version. They also had 52 pages per issue, which made them pretty good value, and even more attractive than the landscape reprints because no one was mucking around with the artwork to try and make it fit.

The Pocket Books were actually pretty successful, with eight titles using the format: Hulk, Conan, Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, The Titans, Chiller (a horror-themed title that reprinted things like Tomb of Dracula), Marvel Classics Comics (reprints of Marvel’s adaptations of classic novels such as War of the Worlds, Ivanhoe, The Count of Monte Cristo, etc.), and my own favourite even though I didn’t care much for the title: Star Heroes (Micronauts, Battlestar Galactica). After issue #11, Star Heroes became X-Men, which was disappointing.

And finally, let’s not forget the many Alan Class titles. “Wait, who?” I imagine that I hear you ask.

Well, remember these?

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You’d find them in barber shops, or dentist waiting rooms, or maybe gently curling and sun-faded on a rack outside a store in a seaside town. They never cost very much, but they always looked old-fashioned and rather cheesy.

For thirty years, from 1959, Alan Class & Co. was a publisher who specialised in reprinting stories from a variety of US comics, always without citing the source material or crediting the creators (except in the cases where the credits were already on the original artwork). Most of the two-dozen-or-so titles weren’t around for long, but six of them lasted pretty much throughout the entire life of the company: Sinister Tales, Creepy Worlds, Suspense, Secrets of the Unknown, Uncanny Tales, Astounding Stories.

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The issue above, Uncanny Tales #147, contains the following stories:

“Robertson’s Robots” (by Pierre Alonzo and Chic Stone, 8 pages, from Adventures into the Unknown #133, June-July 1962, ACG)

“Elmer Gets the Most Striking Dates” (By Pierre Alonzo and Ogden Whitney, 7 pages, from Forbidden Worlds #102, March-April 1962, ACG)

“For as Long as You Live” (by Shane O’Shea and Paul Reinman, 15 pages, from Adventures into the Unknown #130, February 1962, ACG)

“The Hand of the Unknown” (by Shane O’Shea and Pete Costanza, 9 pages, from Forbidden Worlds #102, March-April 1962, ACG)

“Gurr, Go Home” (by Derek Rutherford and Ogden Whitney, 8 pages, from Adventures into the Unknown #111, September 1959, ACG)

“A Pigeon from Greece” (unknown creators , 1 page, unknown source)

(For what it’s worth: Shane O’Shea and Pierre Alonzo are both pseudonyms of the prolific writer Richard E. Hughes.)

The contents of the Alan Class comics were reprinted from a large variety of US publishers, such as Timely, Atlas, Marvel Comics, American Comics Group (ACG), Charlton, Archie, Fawcett, King Features comics and assorted newspaper strips.

Each issue was square-bound, 18.5cm x 23.5cm, undated, and contained 68 pages including the cover. Contents were in black and white, generally rather poorly printed, though the front cover was always colour and was quite enticing from a distance. The issues contained no editorial content and little to no advertising, save for an ad on the back cover listing all the titles available. The same ad appeared on almost every single issue, as far as I can see:

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But were they good? Overall, no. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t play an important part in the history of comics. Because the contents come from all over the place, the Alan Class comics are actually a pretty good source of early material by creators such as Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, as well as being an excellent source of the sort of forgettable trashy old nonsense that gave comics a bad name.

And, yes, if you’ve been paying attention to the sizes, you’ll have spotted that these Alan Class digests are actually larger than the current standard US comic size, but they’re smaller than the average British comic so that counts.

Now, to wrap up, here’s a mildly interesting but ultimately useless graphic comparing the sizes mentioned above. Just, y’know, because.

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6 thoughts on “Little Comics

  1. There were many other sized comics out there including TV21, the appropriately named The Big One, Countdown and the strangely proportioned Giant War Picture library.

    The first series of TV21 started out at the size of Eagle but later lost a tads worth of height. The second series (TV21 & Joe 90) was a title of no fixed dimensions, shrinking down from the size of a later Series 1 to the more usual IPC size in gradual steps so as not to induce panic. It, however failed to maintain this size consistently. However it did cover the transition to decimalisation in a very strange and unique way, but that’s another story.

    Liked by 1 person

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