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IPC, Fleetway or Whatever They Were Called This Week: The Confused History of a Comics Publisher!

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Broken Frontier takes a look at the British comics company that, under many names and in different guises, gave us the likes of 2000AD, Battle, Action and a plethora of humour titles...

One of the longest established comics publishers in the world, Amalgamated Press (owned by Alfred Harmsworth and based at Fleetway House in London) was originally a publisher of various other types of periodical, before Harmsworth decided there was money to be made in comics, launching both Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips in 1890.

The success of these titles (both of which ran until 1953 - a not unimpressive 63 years) prompted Harmsworth to publish more. These included the long-running Knockout, Film Fun, Lion, Playhour, Puck and The Funny Wonder amongst dozens of others, with comic sales booming in the years surrounding the first World War (though paper shortages during the second hit Amalgamated Press as hard as they did competitors such as DC Thomson).

By the late 1950s, Harmsworth’s speculative endeavour had become one of the most prolific comics publishers around, though Harmsworth himself had passed away in 1922. In 1959, AP became Fleetway Publications, the name with which it is still most readily associated, and the next decade is now regarded as a golden age for British comics which saw the launch of such heavyweight titles as Buster and Valiant as well as shorter-lived but fondly remembered  titles including Hurricane.

In 1968 the company merged with Odhams Press, which had already absorbed both Hulton Press and George Newnes Publishing, two of Fleetway’s other major competitors, to form the International Publishing Corporation (IPC). The name ‘Fleetway’ was still used to refer to IPC’s principal comics publishing arm though, and for a time, the Odhams name also remained on titles such as Smash! (which, along with its companion titles Pow!, Wham!, Fantastic and Terrific, had until recently been responsible for bringing Marvel Comics to Britain’s huddled masses in black and white reprint form) until the entire comics division was effectively consolidated under the Fleetway banner.

                   

A selection of IPC's '60s offerings including humour comic Buster and the adventure papers Valiant and Lion

Fleetway had been a powerhouse in the British comics industry for decades by this time. Thousands of British kids were hopelessly addicted to their bewildering array of titles and to the adventures and misadventures of characters as diverse as the Steel Claw (one of that breed of uniquely British superheroes who under most circumstances would never consider anything as daft as wearing a costume) or Ken Reid’s anarchic creations Frankie Stein (a loveable but not very bright monster) and Faceache (a kid who could morph himself into a variety of monstrous forms).

The acquisition of Odhams effectively knocked out one of their last major competitors and also gave them a number of additional benefits such as gaining ownership of Hulton’s legendary character Dan Dare of The Eagle (who would resurface first in the sci-fi anthology 2000AD and later in a new, revamped Eagle).  In theory, the only way should have been up, but by the mid-1970s the British comics industry was in decline and IPC knew it. Pat Mills’ now legendary Action title created a surge of interest, but the controversy surrounding the excessive violence in its pages led to its early demise, and while its successor 2000AD quickly became something of a phenomenon, most of the other long-running titles were on the way out; their jaded creators often just treading water while waiting for the end.

In 1987, IPC’s Fleetway division, including many of its comics properties and ongoing titles was sold to Pergamon Holdings, a company owned by Robert Maxwell. This was a move which, in hindsight, was disastrous for the company…and indeed for comics historians, since Maxwell’s son almost immediately ordered the Fleetway archive, containing thousands of pages of original artwork, to be junked in order to free up a building! Long-time 2000AD artist Kevin O’Neill recounts with horror the sight of stacks of pages being thrown into a skip when he went to reclaim some of his own work.

                 

Some of IPC's much-loved humour titles: Frankie Stein celebrates Christmas in Whoopee!; the anarchic Krazy; and the long-running "two-comics-in-one" Whizzer and Chips

In 1991 however, Egmont UK purchased Fleetway from Maxwell and merged it with their own comics publishing arm, London Editions Magazines, to form Fleetway Editions. The most successful of the remaining Fleetway titles, 2000AD, was sold to games development company Rebellion in 2000, along with all related characters and its sister title the Judge Dredd Megazine. From there the Fleetway comics line dwindled, with even the Fleetway name vanishing after 2002.  

By this time though, even the longest surviving Fleetway title from the old days, Buster, had ceased publication, bowing out in January 2000 after a more than respectable forty years. Most of the other longer lasting Fleetway titles of the second half of the 20th century, including Whizzer and Chips, Roy of the Rovers, Whoopee! and Tiger had already disappeared in the previous decade. Just over a century of comics publishing by Fleetway in its various incarnations was over.

Of course, this still left the question of the characters themselves and the strips they had appeared in. Over the decades, Fleetway had come up with a host of well remembered and much loved characters, many of whom had international appeal having been sold all over Europe in reprint editions; the previously mentioned Steel Claw (a man who became invisible if given an electric shock, all apart from his steel prosthetic hand which would float around eerily), the globetrotting adventurer Tim Kelly, wielder of the mystical eye of Zoltec in the strip Kelly’s Eye, the loveable Robot Archie, the Spider (a bizarre criminal turned crime-fighter whose adventures were for the most part scripted by Superman creator Jerry Siegel)  and many more.

                   

The controversial Action comic (note the tagline at the top of the cover!), football weekly Roy of the Rovers and the groundbreaking 2000AD.

But the legal status of some of these characters was not clear when IPC sold Fleetway, and would cause problems later on. In 1992, Fleetway/Egmont had published the 2000AD Action Special, the 2000AD team not realizing that Egmont had only purchased the rights to the Fleetway characters created after January 1 1970 (plus twenty-six characters from Buster who were specifically named in the agreement), which excluded all of the characters in the Special!  Worse still, Tim Kelly had by this time become the star of a solo strip in 2000AD itself! Predictably, this was quickly dropped and never referenced again. Dan Dare, meanwhile, was sold off to an entirely different company, the Dan Dare Corporation (set up for precisely that purpose).

Kelly, the Spider, Battler Britton and the rest remained the property of the company now known as IPC Media, which was later bought, after changing hands a couple more times, by Time Warner, owners of DC Comics, and in 2005 DC’s WildStorm imprint launched Albion, a six-issue limited series featuring updated versions of many of the old IPC characters including the Steel Claw, Kelly, Archie and the Spider. When writers Leah Moore and John Reppion wanted to include certain Fleetway characters introduced after 1970 though, they found that Time Warner did not own them so they had to be left anonymous or their names changed (Faceache appears throughout under the name ‘Fred Akeley’, presumably his ‘real’ name).  

Unfortunately, while Albion achieved some critical success, and indeed spawned a couple of follow up series (one featuring WWII air ace Battler Britton and one an updated version of Forties superhero Thunderbolt Jaxon) it did not ultimately lead to a full scale return for the former Fleetway stars, who’ve been languishing in limbo ever since; at least, if you don’t count a number of beautifully packaged and surprisingly successful hardcover reprint collections featuring the Spider, the Steel Claw and, most notably, Pat Mills’ groundbreaking World War One saga Charley’s War!

Still, the hundreds, possibly thousands, of characters spawned by AP, Fleetway and IPC over the decades still have their fans, and it’s surely only a matter of time before the Steel Claw floats into action once more, Tim Kelly and Robot Archie by his side.

Isn’t it?

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Comments

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Aug 17, 2011 at 8:55am

    Robot Archie! I still have some great oversized softcovers in dutch with his adventures, I really loved the wackiness of his adventures though there really was a tragic element to them. Amazing article Tony, very insightful. thanks for this.

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Aug 17, 2011 at 9:06am

    Had fun with the covers on this one!

  • Bart Croonenborghs

    Bart Croonenborghs Aug 17, 2011 at 9:11am

    LOL I'll bet!

  • Tony Ingram

    Tony Ingram Aug 18, 2011 at 1:57am

    IPC probably created more characters, many of them very successful, than DC and marvel combined over the course of about a century, longer than either of the big two have been around. It really is a shame they've all faded into comparative obscurity.

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Aug 18, 2011 at 9:16am

    Absolutely. I wish someone like Titan would compile some of the humour strips as well.

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