Foreword to "Best of Eagle" [Michael Joseph 1977] by Marcus Morris, founding editor of Eagle.
This is an article Marcus Morris wrote describing how Eagle came into being, and whilst there may be quibbles as to detail, this is THE accepted version. The book itself is worth having, as it has well chosen excerpts from all the major stories.
Eagle was the result of a glider accident and of my own strong interest in the problem of communicating with the general public. I had long felt that parish magazines (the parson' s main written method of presenting himself to his followers) were dreary and ineffective. My appointment as vicar of St James's, Birkdale, Lancashire gave me my first chance to do something about it. I gradually converted a four-page leaflet into a magazine called The Anvil, in which 'issues' could be 'hammered out'. I had always been interested in journalism and had a great desire to 'edit' something. At Oxford I had read philosophy, ancient history and theology, not immediately identifiable with journalism, and Anvil liberated those pent-up editorial urges. I didn't see why a magazine aimed at conveying an intelligent view of Christianity should not try to be as professional as any other magazine. I based Anvil roughly on Lilliput, the pocket magazine created by that brilliant editor Stefan Lorant who also started Picture Post, and I managed to get some useful contributors ranging from C. S. Lewis, C. E. M. Joad to Harold Macmillan.
Chicko ran for some years, always in the same format.
I also got seriously into debt; the spirit was willing but the sales were weak. There was no money to promote the magazine, and though it spread from being a parish magazine to become a town, then a county, and finally a national magazine, it still lost money. My patient and loyal, if slightly incredulous, parishioners gave me lmmensely generous and practical as well as financial support, contributing I funds and running bazaars to raise money. But I sank deeper into debt, though not into despair. Anvil had attracted attention and was described by one critic as 'a Christian magazine alongside the best secular publications'. And apart from the eminent contributors I had a special windfall: I discovered at the local art school a young artist, Frank Hampson, who became chief illustrator and cartoonist and designed the covers.
It was about this time that, with the help of a journalist, Norman Price, I wrote an article for the Sunday Dispatch. It was headed 'Comics that bring Horror into the Nursery', caused quite a stir and earned me twenty guineas. Anvil's debts were then about three thousand pounds. But at least it was a start.
The phenomenal rise and rule of the comic in America, plus a study of the papers and publications that children were reading in this country, seemed to point an obvious moral-and hence came the idea of Eagle. Many American comics were most skilfully and vividly drawn, but often their content was deplorable, nastily over-violent and obscene, often with undue emphasis on the supernatural and magical as a way of solving problems. But it was clear to me that the strip cartoon was capable of development in a way not yet seen in England except in one or two of the daily and Sunday newspapers and that it was a new and important medium of communication, with its own laws and limitations.
Here, surely, was a form which could be used to convey to the child the right kind of standards, values and attitudes, combined with the necessary amount of excitement and adventure. And so to the problems of Anvil I added those of Eagle. There may have been fears for my sanity; certainly there were prophecies of doom.
Before starting on Eagle I had the idea of an exemplary character, Lex Christian, whose exploits were to be told exclusively in strip-cartoon form. Hampson was most enthusiastic about this project. I thought we might sell the idea to a Sunday newspaper and very soon we had the interest of the editor of the Sunday Empire News, Terence Horsley. But not for long: he was tragically killed in a gliding accident.
This proved to be a turning point. I still recall a late-night visit to Hampson's house when I told him that we should pack up the idea of doing a single strip for any paper, and that we should be bold and resolute and concentrate our energies on producing an entirely new, original children's paper of our own. He agreed immediately.
This decision increased my hopes and determination to succeed. And naturally, it increased the debts too. I found it absolutely essential to ensure some regular salary for Hampson and so I paid him £10 a week - later to go up to £14. There was a growing sense of urgency and it became clear that an addition to the team was imperative. Harold Johns was another gifted artist who came from the same art school as Hampson, and he went on to the pay roll.
Before long I was paying out in total more than I was earning myself. Apart from the regular staff, there were contributors to be taken into account. In the Anvil/Eagle period, they included a vicar who was editing the Blackburn Diocesan Magazine for the Bishop of Blackburn. This was Chad Varah, who was to found the Samaritans. And there was Walkden Fisher, a designer for a local toy firm who did the first 'exploded' drawings for Eagle's centre spread; Spencer Croft, who appeared as the scientist, 'Professor Brittain', and another promising young art student from Liverpool called Norman Thelwell.
What an ad! And 2/9 - 2 shillings 9 pennies in "old" money - is around 12p - yes, twelve pence - new money. Gives you an idea of inflation since 1950 ...
Eagle, like Dan Dare, its star attraction, was not born overnight. We were hard at it from the beginning of 1949 to April 1950. The title Eagle did not emerge for a considerable time. Then Lex Christian, who began life as a tough, fighting parson in the slums of the East End of London, became airborne, a flying padre, the Parson of the Fighting Seventh. Dan Dare was on the way. And throughout this time I tramped Fleet Street with the Eagle dummy tucked underneath my arm. I became a regular on the Sunday midnight train from Liverpool Lime Street to London Euston after taking three services, a baptism or two, maybe a wedding, and dealing with the general affairs of the parish. All the time I was trying to sell Eagle, back at Birkdale the work pressed on, days and nights of trial and error, chopping and changing in the search for perfection.
At one stage I had been in touch with Hulton Press (publishers of Picture Post and Lilliput) and a young man from that firm suggested that I should go to see John Myers, then Publicity Manager for J. Arthur Rank. Myers passed me on to Montague Haydon, director of the children's publications at Amalgamated Press (now IPC). Haydon's reaction was perhaps predictable. I had a feeling that he thought I was an impostor, even a mild kind of lunatic. Amalgamated Press did not want Eagle. But they got it in the end, about eleven years later.
Sir Neville Pearson of Newnes was next. I rang him from a phone box (my London office in those days). He asked me round and saw me with one of his chief executives. They were very courteous and expressed considerable interest. But in the end they said that Eagle was 'not an economic proposition'. I had a brief, fruitless meeting with Boardman's, American publishers of books and comics and then- for the life of me I can't think why - secured the interest of the editor of the Sporting Record. His name was Mike Wardell, he wore a black eye patch and he was a great Fleet Street character. But in the end he couldn't help me. I began climbing higher.
I saw John Walter, General Manager of The Times, and Lord Camrose, proprietor of the Daily Telegraph. Beautiful manners again, but two more blanks. I never did see Lord Kemsley of the Sunday Times. I saw his very polite and handsome personal assistant, whose name was Denis Hamilton. He thought I was asking for a donation to some charity and pointed out that 'his lordship has many calls upon his purse'.Then back home in Birkdale, in the autumn of 1949, I had a telegram: 'Definitely interested do not approach any other publisher'.
It was Hulton Press, publishers of Lilliput and Picture Post, who finally took on Eagle and brought me and my family to London. Hampson came too, together with fellow artists Harold Johns, Eric Eden, Bruce Cornwell and Joan Porter. Also crucial in the development of Eagle was the eminent typographer, Ruari McLean, who became a close friend and worked intensively with me on the design and layout. The title Eagle came in the end from Frank Hampson 's wife, and the lettering for it from Berthold Wolpe of Faber& Faber. The model for the Eagle symbol was the top of a large brass inkwell I bought at the White Elephant stall at the vicarage garden party.
Ah. Every boy's dream in 1950!
Ruari McLean has refreshed my memory (and his, no doubt) with the flavour of the period: 'I was on the payroll at £5 a week, as your typographic adviser. During the day I was working in Holden's advertising agency for George Rainbird and could I only see you in the evenings. Shortly you asked me to find a flat that we could share during the week; my wife and family were in Essex, yours at Birkdale, so this sounded sensible. I found a flat in South Audley Street. You were unperturbed when we discovered that most of the other occupants of the building were tarts. It was the main activity in South Audley Street; doors banged and cars drove away at periodic intervals all through the night until breakfast time. Many evenings I was present in the flat when you briefed the artists who had been invited to work on this new project. Nearly always they had not done what you had asked them to do, but what they thought was really wanted. If, as quite frequently happened, they refused to be told how to draw their strips by a young parson who had never edited anything except a parish magazine before, and persisted in doing it how they wanted, they found themselves dropped.
'Often we were still at it at two or three or even four in the morning, at which time I was ready to agree with anything; but you never let anything go until you were completely satisfied, and would consult me about a comma or a hyphen, and argue about it endlessly, and curse me for being lazy if I said it didn't matter, and could I please go to bed? In retrospect, it seems to me that every word and every syllable in the early numbers of Eagle were chewed over endlessly, until you were certain it was right. I cared about English too, but I didn't have your stamina.'
At that time in England the number of skilful strip-cartoon artists was limited, and the best of them were already in work. Eventually some of them came to work for Eagle (and later its sister papers) but meanwhile I had to find new 'untried' artists to do the job I wanted.
I am sure that the success of Eagle (a sell-out of 900,000 copies of its first issue) was due to the insistance on quality. Where Eagle was concerned, the quality of the paper, printing, artwork and writing set a new standard. There were bright colours, well-drawn pictures and exciting stories. Technically, the Eagle strips marked an advance on the standards of that time (standards that had stood still for years) when most strips were not true strips but merely pictures with captions underneath. We tried to tell the stories mainly through the dramatic sequence of the pictures, with the help of balloons not too many issuing from the characters' mouths and heads.
Eagle was to win the support of parents, schoolmasters, educationalists and clergy. Dr James Hemming, the well-known educationalist, writer and broadcaster, writes: 'I came in on Eagle originally because Johnny Metcalfe of Colman, Prentis & Varley rang me up to know if I was interested in the project. I was drawn in to taking the original dummy around to show the teacher and head teacher organisations. We met first around then. The launch complete, you asked me to stay linked as your consultant. So there we, very pleasantly, were. As for those early days, there was the sheer miracle of Eagle appearing regularly as, for mlonths, perforce, we had no time in hand. Then there was the solid identification and teamwork that somehow got the work done week by week. I seem to recall that the dummy got lost on one occasion at least ... And it always interested me the way the characters of Eagle were really alive for the readers. One one occasion, a boy asked me if Digby (in Dan Dare) would be willing to sign autographs. And there was that curious man who turned up and said he had an invention for Dan Dare to use.'
Chad Varah became one of the first and best scriptwriters for Eagle and a tower of strength in other activities associated with the paper.
He writes: 'Even before I started the Samaritans I had a busy life, and had to do most of my writing between 10.00 p.m. and 3.00 a.m. Then there were the carol services, hugely successful and reflecting the spirit and the circulation-of Eagle itself. The readers wanted to see you in the flesh (or failing you, me), so we did these marathon tours of cathedrals and had packed houses and writer's cramp through signing autographs.' It was in November 1949 that Hulton Press accepted.
An EAGLE diary.
Eagle and I moved into their premises in Shoe Lane, EC4. I think they must have had some faith in me as an editor but, initially, not as a clergyman - after one of my early visits they rushed to check my credentials in Crockford's Clerical Directory. I have always been told that it was Tom Hopkinson, Editor of Picture Post, who was called down by management, shown the dummy and asked his opinion. Apparently he replied: 'You should publish this and take on whoever brought it here.' My first office in Shoe Lane was not very grand in fact it was a kind of anteroom to the office of the chairman, Edward (later Sir Edward) Hulton. It was rather a comic situation. He did his best to take no notice of me on his way in and out. He could hardly have been unaware of my existence, but I had the feeling that he might be uncertain of my identity and none too sure of what I was doing there. In the end, I suppose, someone told him.
Right up to the publication of the first issue on 14 April 1950, the situation was chaotic. I was head cook and bottle-washer, and a man cal:led Charles Green assisted Ruari McLean with the layout and typography. After the first issue, more than a month went by before Eagle acquired any staff: a sub, Derek Lord, who joined us from the defunct Leader, and an assistant editor, Ellen Vincent. She was to do this job admirably for eight years. Before she joined me from an advertising agency (the one that was to handle the promotion and launching of Eagle), Ellen Vincent's boss at Coleman, Prentis & Varley was most curious about the personality and physique of the editor of this new, still highly secretive paper for boys. The name of the paper had not yet been announced, but it was known by a code name. 'Try to see the vicar, duckie,' she was told. They wanted to know, she recalls, if the vicar was ' Fat, comfortable, tweedy and pipe smoking. I was curious too and not a little astonished to discover you to be youthful, slim, nervy, fashionably dressed and a cigarette chainsmoker. In addition, you were married to a beautiful actress, Jessica Dunning, and had four children to support. When you offered me the job on Eagle (it became known as assistant to the vicar), I played for big stakes. I told you I wanted £750 a year-double my CPV salary and you agreed immediately.'
Before publication there was barely a trickle of staff but a huge and constant flood of writers and artists and agents with a great variety of materialsome good, some promising and some quite useless; in fact, the typical chaotic prelude to all new publications. There were many stages to negotiate before the germ of an idea attained its final form on the page. The frequent conferences with the scriptwriter before a final version was agreed were succeeded by even more lengthy (and more complicated) sessions with the artist who was often required to submit many 'rough' visuals before the finished artwork. This in turn required the work of a lettering artist to fill in the balloons, and the typesetting of any text matter (brief explanations, continuities, etc.) to make the strip-cartoon story fully comprehensive. Even material set entirely in type (fiction, non-fiction, the Editor's letter and news of various activities) almost always required illustration by way of drawings and photographs, in all shapes and sizes. Always the visual impact was vital in order to project a look of liveliness and enticement on every page. And naturally the pages did not fall haphazardly into place. The most careful attention had to be paid to the overall design and layout of each issue.
Hmmmm .... a career? Well, possibly. But no one would have guessed what was to happen only 30 years later. And £5 10/- !! What a prospect.
It was those artists and writers, examples of whose work appear in The Best of Eagle, who gave Eagle its distinctive style and stamp.
Best of all perhaps is the artist who is also the writer, and if not, is never a slave to the writer: he is always thinking visually, and it is here that Frank Hampson was supreme. Hampson, like his creation Dan Dare, was the corner-stone of Eagle. He shared my vision and had prodigious inventiveness and energy. In the beginning he drew Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future; the Great Adventurer (the story of St Paul); and Tommy Walls, our ice-cream advertising strip. In the end he drew The Road of Courage (a life of Christ). In between he was involved in working for the numerolls annuals and books that came out of Eagle, and lending his name and ability to many of the toys and games produced by our merchandising department. He was a great stylist and a very demanding one. The eventual success of Eagle led to the acquisition of a fairly big staff. But we were a bit thin on the ground in the beginning and I was glad to appoint Rosemary Garland (editorial) and Michael Gibson (art department). A few years later, as the organisation grew, Rosemary Garland became Assistant Editor of Robin and Michael Gibson became responsible for books and annuals. In addition we had to appoint full-time assistants for lettering and the many illustrations and diagrams that could be done only in the office.
Perhaps Hampson's heir, certainly his most notable successor, was Frank Bellamy, a most fastidious artist and scrupulous draftsman, and like Hampson at his best, often consumed with anxiety. Bellamy came fairly late to the Eagle scene and at one stage, somewhat reluctantly, took over Dan Dare. Some of his best work for Eagle may be seen in The Happy Warrior (Life of Winston Churchill), The Shepherd King (David), and later Montgomery of Alamein. Like Hampson, he excelled in colour work and was fascinated by machinery and technical devices. Bellamy died suddenly in July 1976.
The late Norman Williams was an old stager who hammered out his work in defiance of scriptwriters even good ones. He did not need telling, did not even want to know about the techniques of the strip cartoon. Examples of his best work are Alfred the Great, The Baden Powell Story, and the Great Sailor (Life of Nelson), where he proved typically obstinate in the matter of the Battle of Trafalgar. His son Pat also did notable work for Eagle.
John Worsley, who excelled in black and white, was the most notable artist to draw P.C.49, based on the radio serial created by Alan Stranks, a highly gifted Australian who eventually took on the scripting of Dan Dare and who astonished me by writing a lengthy underwater sequence. While still employed by the paper, Stranks died of a heart attack in Spain.
Jack Daniel and then Frank Humphris drew Riders of the Range, based on another highly successful radio serial, this time by Charles Chilton, who is still a leading writer and producer with the BBC. One of the most successful early stunts was to send Charles Chilton to Tombstone, Arizona where he was made sheriff and where he met real cowboys and filed his impressions for Eagle readers. Martin Aitchison drew the exotic Luck of the Legion (a home-grown product) with script by Geoffrey Bond.
In the humourous vein three artists were outstanding. One was known long before Eagle and is still going strong. He is David Langdon, who created Professor Puff and his dog Wuff. Then John Ryan, the art master from Harrow who invented Captain Pugwash and Harris Tweed, Extra Special Agent. And finally, Norman Thelwell, who first created Chicko before he found his true comic niche with girls and ponies that refuse fences. There were of course many more artists who contributed to Eagle, but I cannot mention them all; and those who contributed primarily to the other papers of the group (Girl, Robin and Swift) have, of course, no place in this anthology. As for the Eagle writers, their work, though invaluable, was of necessity overshadowed by the artists. This includes even Chad Varah, who was with me from the first and who brought his considerable powers of mind and invention to write not only the scripts for our Bible stories but also to take on the scripting of Dan Dare at a moment's notice. In a traditional form, the writing of school stories, Peter Ling deserves notice. And there was that distinguished journalist of his day (he is still distinguished) Macdonald Hastings, whose series Eagle Special Investigator may still be read as first-class documentaries of the period. Apart from the Editor's letter I wrote a great deal myself, in that fiddling, improving and revising way that most editors have. But again, like most editors, the bulk of my writing consisted of answering questions and making demands of management, accountants, printers etc. The letters from our readers were so numerous that after a few weeks' publication we were obliged to hire a staff to cope with the flood. The Eagle Club was another instant success, with applications from 60,000 readers after our first two issues. Two noble ladies were in charge of this department: Mrs Stark and Miss Mincher.
Hulton Press had achieved considerable success with Picture Post, Lilliput, Housewife and Farmer's Weekly. When they took on Eagle the firm spared no expense to make it a winner from the start. Gradually, while we amended, altered, revised and got together the first issue, the pattern emerged and launching plans were formulated. Copies were to be mailed direct, with a covering letter, to several hundred thousand people concerned with children and youth work - teachers, clergy, educationalists, club leaders, doctors and so on. The reaction was encouraging to a degree we had not dared to hope for. The other important plan for the launch was the 'Hunt the Eagle' schedule. Huge golden eagles, 4ft l0in. high, 4ft 6in. from beak to tail, with a wing span of 4ft, were mounted on cars and driven round towns and villages up and down the country. Loudspeakers were fitted to the cars and Hulton Press representatives handed out 3d tokens that could be exchanged at a newsagent for a free copy of Eagle. Another hugely successful idea. There were other, wilder, notions, ranging from the Editor's descent by parachute into Hyde Park, and the release of 200,000 Eagle balloons throughout the country. These were abandoned, but a great amount of advertising space was booked in the national dailies and weeklies.
The two miracles that attended the first issue of Eagle were: getting the material to the printer in the first place; and his printing it the second. The printing of Eagle is a story in itself a supreme example of craftsmanship and engineering skill overcoming apparently insuperable difficulties. The late Eric Bemrose of Eric Bemrose Limited of Aintree, faced with the problem of printing one million copies of Eagle for its first issue, designed, built and worked a new ten-unit photogravure rotary machine. With flair and improvisation he created the plant in twelve weeks from start to finish and trained a team to work it. On publication day there were long queues outside the newsagents. Eagle was a success and a sell-out, almost one million copies.
We had tried to start a paper which would be the natural choice of the child, but, at the same time, would have the enthusiastic approval of the parent and the teacher; in this we succeeded. It was a great moment at the end of the first day when the telegrams from our reps came pouring in with the good news. Eagle was off to a roaring start with Dan Dare, 'Cosmic Knight Errant'-a phrase of Maurice Richardson's - 'racing to the rescue of Rocket Ship No. 1 trapped by the silicon mass on the fringe of the Flame Lands'. And waiting in the wings of an unknown, hostile universe was the Mekon.
Mug of the Month - an idea which might have been scorned by some, but it was an idea which deserved support. It's a pity there aren't similar awards today.
Eagle had a fairly short life, from 1950 to 1970, by which time it had been merged with Lion. Rut its most successful life was even shorter, from 1950 to about 1962. In 1960 Hulton Press was taken over by Odhams and renamed Longacre Press. Soon after that I left to join the National Magazine Company. I was succeeded by my deputy, Clifford Makins. The following year Odhams was taken over by the Daily Mirror Group (now IPC ) and then Makins left. Eagle died slowly and, it seemed to me, painfully, and so my choice of The Best of Eagle is confined to the years 1950 to 1962.
Those were exciting times hard work but fun. And it is very pleasant to keep meeting 40-year-olds who say they were 'brought up' on Eagle.