Spot the Difference…

Lew Stringer recently revisited the traumatic week in 1969 when the comic SMASH! was completely revamped . The article here at gives a good summary and evokes the distress some of us felt. It also raises some interesting points about change and the management of change. I’ll talk about the revamped comic at the end, but just to get to the essential points:

The main reason most of us bought SMASH! 51 years ago was because (like all the old Power Comics) it contained a mix of Marvel superhero reprints and anarchic British comedy. As Lew points out, this had gradually been changing over the previous year due to internal management shifts within the International Publishing Corporation (IPC). But January 1969 was the “big bang” when the comic was revamped to the taste of staff from the prevailing Fleetway comics. An article by the fictional new office boy, “Mike” (‘Smash Chat’) informed us that they’d decided to give the superheroes a rest for a bit. It was my first taste of corporate bullshit. There may have been sound reasons for reducing the Marvel Comics reprints (as weeklies, the several Power Comics published by IPC’s Odhams subsidiary had come close to exhausting the supply of monthly Marvel comics) but as Lew points out, the bottom line is that the old Smash was not to the taste of the prevailing management *. So like most forced recipients of change, I was probably ( 51 years is a long time to remember accurately) predisposed to resist!

*Spider-Man and Ghost Rider reprints popped up the following year in the revamped TV21.

And yet I stuck with the new SMASH! I still have a copy from September 1969 The Warriors of the World feature on the cover helpfully shows that this is the 26th issue of the new series, which suggests that the comic won me over.

A simplistic reading might be that this was just Schumpeter’s Creative Destruction at work, with innovation pushing aside the exhausted old guard and delivering new benefits to the consumer. The lesson might be that it’s better to embrace change rather than resist it because – in the end – you will come round. Better sooner, rather than later.

But, it’s not quite that simple. The Fleetway arm of IPC were the old guard. Odhams’ Power Comics had been the young Turks winning over the audience with new ideas. If anything, this was the reverse of creative destruction, with the old monoliths being rebuilt. And to complicate things – while the look of the new SMASH! was more conventional with distinctive artists like Ken Reid and Mike Higgs, writers on the old SMASH! were employed on the new SMASH! They may have been tales that looked more corporate but they still had the same inventiveness. So any benefits may have been derived from the quality of the staff, rather than the management vision.

To sum up, we’re told that change is good. In small steady doses that may be true (Fleetway had already slipped traditional strips like Sergeant Rock, Paratrooper and King of the Ring in among the superheroes the previous year). When big change does come, the staff and the punters have little choice but to accept it and make the best of it. Since we can’t live parallel lives we never really know if it’s for the better, although as Lew’s article shows, external events often have a trick of undermining the best laid plans. What you can be sure of is A: There is no point telling management their plans won’t work B: If it doesn’t work, you can be sure it will because of external factors that no-one could have predicted C: By the time it doesn’t work, the people who made the original decision will have moved on to new successes.

The Rebbel Robot

Many of the new comic strips were good. Rebbels on the Run had been a fairly conventional theme – three orphaned brothers run away from a care home rather than be split up. But with this issue the story morphed into The Rebbel Robot. The brothers meet the mysterious Professor Bodkin who tells them that their dead father had been a secret service agent. Just before he died, Frank Rebbel allowed Bodkin to feed his brain patterns into an electronic brain which is now enclosed in a robot body.

Other stories included Master of the Marsh, in which a strange hermit called Patchman (implied to be a reincarnation of Hereward the Wake) teaches the working class children at Marshside Secondary School. This weeks episode is like a reverse of The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, with ‘Knocker Reeves’ trying to sabotage his classmates chances in the County sports day. There are eleven dramatic strips (some reprints) all well-told and exciting. Janus Stark and Cursitor Doom are among them, but there’s a host of lesser-known strips. And that’s before you get to the comedy strips.

It strikes me now that the most ironic of the strips is The Battle of Britain. Not a wartime strip, it tells how Secret Service agent Simon Kane and his West Indian assistant Tubby oppose “the power crazed Baron Rudolph” who has seized control of London and most of Britain. I believe this was a reprint from the early 1960’s, but with sharp, clean Geoff Campion artwork this was one of my favourite strips. By September 1969, Kane has managed to rescue the Prime Minister from a prison camp in Hyde Park and is working with army loyalists to smuggle the Prime Minister out to Canada. The irony is, of course, that IPC’s chairman Cecil King had been sacked by the board after a farcical attempt to launch a coups against Harold Wilson’s government in May 1968. If only they’d got Ken Reid to draw that one up!