Firstly, I should say I do not like football. I sometimes go see our local ice hockey team here in Belfast and every four years I become obsessed with the Summer Olympics, but aside from those I’m not what anyone would call a fan of sport. (Unless it’s Nintendo’s.) It’s important to state this before writing about this book because you’ll see there are a lot of sporting references within it which might put you off if you don’t like sport. But trust me, it shouldn’t.
Lion, Tiger, Roy of the Rovers, Top Soccer, 2000AD, Battle, Speed, The New Eagle, Scream, Mask, Super Naturals, Wildcat, Hot-Shot, Ring Raiders, Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles Adventures, Toxic Crusaders, The Big Daddy Annuals, The Geoff Boycott Annual, The Suzie Dando Annual, Johnny Cougar’s Wrestling Monthly, Scorer, one-off specials, magazines, World Cup poster magazines, sports quiz books, greetings cards, Ladybird books… this is a career which could take up several volumes.
Barrie Tomlinson is a giant in the world of British comics. Readers of the blog will be familiar with the name already due to coverage of three of his titles, namely Ring Raiders, Wildcat and Super Naturals. I remember some friends being obsessed with his Mask comic and later we all collected the Turtles together. These were only the tip of the iceberg of comics Barrie created and edited and this hardback book sees him take us on a very personal trip down memory lane.
Reading Comic Book Hero is like having Barrie sitting next to you, having a casual chat, reminiscing about his creations, his colleagues and friends, the personalities he met and all the fun he had along the way. The structure of the book adds to this cosiness, with no chapters as such, just the occasional comic name as a title here and there, which lends a personal diary feel to the proceedings. It’s a unique way of writing a book and it’s the perfect choice for Barrie’s particular style of storytelling.
And what a story he has to tell.
Barrie’s work with Fleetway Publications began in 1961 and this book covers everything he worked on right up to 2011 and his retirement. A large portion of the book is taken up with Tiger, the sports focussed action comic, but not before we’ve had some fascinating insights into how the comics of the day were edited thanks to Barrie learning from the likes of Bernard Smith. Even in times of high work volumes and obvious stress, Barrie is completely respectful and understanding of those he worked for and it’s refreshing to read a book which doesn’t relish in exposing or bitching in order to sell.
I found it fascinating to read how loved and respected Tiger was in the world of sport, with big stars contributing to Barrie’s comics as regular writers, in exclusive photos, meeting competition winners and appearing at the Tiger Awards events. The photos of these gatherings in particular are fantastic and it’s amazing to think of how all these celebrities, including personal favourites Morecambe and Wise came together in such a way for a children’s comic.
It’s sad to read how some of his contemporaries accused Barrie of only wanting to further himself by involving big stars, but as he explains it was all for the comics. It worked a treat too! Comics like Tiger and Roy of the Rovers enjoyed long lives and huge circulation figures and the exposure these guest stars brought certainly wasn’t to be sniffed at. But the book isn’t all about the glitz and the glamour (although a story about a naked radio interview has to be read to be believed), there’s plenty of insider comics information.
For particular interest to me were Barrie’s personal thoughts about Ring Raiders‘ short lifespan, taking the helm of the Turtles juggernaut in the UK and some wonderful insider knowledge on the creation of Wildcat. This takes the form of some Ian Kennedy sketches and the original synopsis for the script of the preview comic. What really surprised me was how much the creation of the sports comics interested me and I found it particularly fascinating to learn about Storm Force.
I’d seen adverts for its Battle comic debut in the pages of other Fleetway publications such as the piggy pink one this blog was named after. I knew it was a big deal to the publishers at the time but didn’t know why until reading this book. The contract to create Action Force comics had come to an end, with Hasbro taking over the toy line to relaunch it as the British version of G.I. Joe, the comics licence moving to Marvel. In response, Storm Force was created to fill that void. In Comic Book Hero we see some lovely design sketches and get plenty of insights into how it came about. I also agree with Barrie when he states the characters would’ve made good toys themselves.
This book covers a lot of comics from the 70s and early 80s, before the likes of OiNK came along, but even if you are of the same vintage as me I can promise you’ll find this an interesting and hugely entertaining read. I didn’t discover the joy of reading comics for myself until #14 of OiNK towards the end of 1986 so I want to categorically state that if you collected any comics from IPC or Fleetway in your youth you’ll love this. For one, I can almost guarantee you Barrie had a hand in what you read and even if you didn’t collect many of his titles you’ll love the insights into one of the biggest UK comics publishers, including the creation of the new Eagle and Scream!
It doesn’t stop there. Comic Book Hero covers the formation of Creative Editorial Services when Barrie and his team worked freelance at home creating comics for Fleetway. To know favourites of mine such as Ring Raiders were created in the comfort of his own home makes me insanely jealous of Barrie’s job at that time! Also in here are the later publications Barrie created when he moved on from weekly and fortnightly comics, right up to the final episode of Scorer in the Daily Mirror in 2011 after it ran for an incredible 22 years. That in itself is a huge achievement. Indeed, the last section of the book is simply called ‘What A Life!’ and I couldn’t agree more.
From chatting with Barrie about the comics he worked on I can honestly say he’s an absolute gent. He’s always really open about his work and puts the fans first even to this day. This attitude and his friendly demeanour and devotion to the craft comes across on every page of this wonderful, personal book. For any UK comics fan Comic Book Hero is an essential read and since you’re reading this blog I’m going to assume it’s a safe bet you’ll love it too.