John McShane on John Sanders book, Hugh McNeil And Suing Robert Maxwell

Let me say right away that, if you are interested in the history of British and European comics, then this book is a must-have.

Of all the people involved with the creation of 2000AD, John Sanders is one I never met in person, although we were on a radio show once; he was in a studio in London while I was in one in Glasgow. I would like to have met him and heard his stories first hand, but I’m more jealous that he met Hugh McNeil.

Hugh McNeil (1910-79) was one of the finest artists in British comics from the 1930s. He was always allowed to script his own humour strips such as Deed-a Day Danny for The Knock-Out and Pansy Potter, the Strongman’s Daughter for the Beano. He branched out into adventure strips and drew Thunderbolt Jaxon for an Australian comic in 1949 from scripts by T.C.H. Pendower. The character made a brief reappearance in Zenith in 2000AD, but in fact the publishers did not realise that they did not at the time own the copyright for the character. Jaxon was later revivied by Dave Gibbons and John Higgins in 2006.

Now, one thing which has always annoyed me about early British comics is the redundant
and condescending captions below each panel. McNeil’s stories work fine without reading a single one of these captions and I am glad to see that Sanders agrees with me: “Out went the dreary practice of setting blocks of text underneath the pictures and the necessity of showing all the characters in the scene in every frame – the reader sitting in the front row of the stalls, we used to call it. In came a more cinematic style with close-ups and mid-shots, and with the scenes drawn from different angles and perspectives.” Sanders is talking here about the start of his involvement in 1948, but in fact it was Wags (by the Eisner & Iger studio) and the Dandy (from DC Thomson) who brought in this refreshing style in 1937. But this shows just how long this snobbish attitude that words are superior to pictures persisted.

Sanders is said to have been involved in the launch of 118 new publications – these are not all comics, of course, but the width of his knowledge of British publishing at the time is very
impressive. His involvement in launching pan-European comics is a subject I have never read about in any other book. Tina was his biggest success, since he identified that Europe was somewhat lacking in comics which appealed to young girls.

He even licensed a strip from the famous René Goscinny. It was called in the UK, Britons Never Never Never Shall Be Slaves. This was the strip I most looked forward to in Ranger, apart from Trigan Empire, of course. But apparently it was not popular with most of their other readers. It went on to become more popular in its release as albums where it resorted to its European title of Asterix.

Sanders makes a slight error in his telling of this story and he also refers more than once to Eagle having started in 1951, when, of course, it was launched in April 1950. But those were the only errors I spotted.

Now, it could be that my special interest in Sanders’ last chapter is influenced by the fact that both my uncle and I, on separate occasions, sued Robert Maxwell and won. But Sanders’ stories of working under this monster are fascinating. What Maxwell did had serious implications for British comics history. Any resemblance between this publisher who treated people with contempt, behaved completely egregiously, faced the prospect of lots of legal cases, and despite appearances was heavily in debt and anybody at the head of government in America is pure coincidence, of course. Maxwell’s answer to his problems was to throw himself off his boat; who knows what the other guy’s solution will be?

King’s Reach is published by Rebellion which is very apt. It is Rebellion who spent years
untangling the rights issues created by Robert Maxwell and now we have their series of the
Treasury of British Comics to look forward to on a regular basis.

This is a fascinating book. I just wish I’d met Hugh McNeil.

John McShane currently writes Culture and Comics for the History of Comics Partwork. If you enjoy comic history order The History of Comics here

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