A look at some early 1950s British comics artwork, including work by Sydney Jordan, who went on to create the comic strip Jeff Hawke, and Jim Holdaway, later the creator (with writer Peter O’Donnell) of the comic strip Modesty Blaise. Sydney Jordan kindly agreed to be interviewed, adding his memories of the beginning of his career and the development of Jeff Hawke.
By Richard Crouch
In July 2017, the Comic Creators Project at the Cartoon Museum acquired a batch of 28 pieces of original comics artwork dating from the early 1950s that came from the archives of the Bayly-Souster Group, an art agency run by Eric Souster and Ernest (also known as Bill) Bayly. The agency operated from the early 20th century until it was dissolved in 1962, and handled a range of commercial art, including advertising work and second world war propaganda posters.
During the second world war, the importation of consumer goods from the USA, including comics, was restricted, and British publishers such as T.V. Boardman and L. Miller and Son stepped in and began to reprint American comics material in Britain. After the war, demand for this material continued to grow and the early 1950s brought something of a boom as a number of independent British publishers began originating American-style comic books for the UK market. These were smaller in size than traditional British comics and printed in black and white with colour covers; they were published monthly and featured one main character rather than being an anthology of strips. Sometimes American prices were printed on the cover to create the impression they were US imports.
The Bayly-Souster Group was commissioned by one such publisher, Sports Cartoons/Man’s World, to produce a line of comics promoting health and fitness, with a view to selling gym equipment. The agency employed a number of artists to create the comics, including Sydney Jordan and Jim Holdaway, examples of whose work is included in the artwork acquired by the museum. I spoke to Sydney about that early time in his career. He came to London from Scotland in 1952, bringing some art samples as he hoped to pick up some additional work. He recalls that he had just visited his contacts in the Fleet Street offices of the Amalgamated Press.
SJ: ‘I met [Bayly and Souster], just by happenstance, where Fleet Street meets the Strand. I was looking at some stuff of Tony Weare’s in a case against the wall of the entrance to their place [Weare was drawing Billy Brave for Mickey Mouse Weekly around that time], and they came along and saw me, this young awkward Scotsman with a bundle of scribbles in his hand! And they kind of ushered me into another world really.’
RC: ‘Were they just starting their relationship with Sports Cartoons/Man’s World?’
SJ: ‘I think so. They said to me, “I note you’re an artist.” I said, “well, I’m trying to be.” They said they’d just got this contract. It was rather an unusual idea, to sell gym equipment and sports stuff through comics. I think it was an extension of the sort of stuff that the American comics had on their back pages. They saw my work, and reckoned it was good enough to do what they wanted and so they made me an offer that if I came down to London I would be guaranteed a minimum of £20 a week, which of course in 1952 was a small fortune.‘
The first published work Sydney produced at Bayly-Souster was Dick Hercules of St Markham’s (1952), a comic featuring a schoolboy who has achieved a super-powerful body through physical training (tying in with the publisher’s fitness theme) and his adventures with his pal called Prof. The museum has acquired eight pages of Sydney’s early artwork from this strip, including a chase on a train, danger on a desert island and a hunt for a kidnapped atomic scientist.
RC: ‘Was it was challenging for you, suddenly having to produce a full comic book on a monthly schedule?’
SJ: ‘It was, of course it was. As you can see, the drawings are fairly spare for the most part and the colour was reserved for the covers but, yes it was, it was a great apprenticeship.’
Before beginning that apprenticeship at Bayly-Souster, Sydney had been gaining valuable experience of being a professional illustrator at Strathmore Studio in Dundee, which was run by Bill McCail and Len Fullerton, both formerly of local publishing giant DC Thomson. There Sydney wrote and drew the half-page humour strip Dora, Tony and Liz. The Bayly-Souster batch contains two of these gentle strips, much to Sydney’s surprise. They were presumably among the samples he brought to London in 1952 and had been archived by the agency.
SJ: ‘I didn’t know anything of that existed any more! Dora, Tony and Liz was the beginning, that was me on my own in Dundee working for Bill McCail. I think it went in the Daily Record. I really was beginning to learn the game then, the story-telling and the page layout.’
RC: ‘Was that all your own work – you did that from the ground up?’
SJ: ‘I did, yes. I was dreaming up the stories as well, which were easier for me to do, because I was learning to draw but I’d already done a bit of writing here and there for Scout’s World and all that kind of thing when I was a wee laddie. Someone said Len Fullerton did some, but I don’t remember that. He encouraged me of course. He had done a series of a Flash Gordon kind of character, Argo Under the Ocean, [under the pen-name Nat Brand for the publisher A. Soloway in All Star Comic, 1941/42] although Len was really a nature artist. He worked for the Glasgow Bulletin and did a nature piece every week.
‘Len was a very competent all-rounder. Bill was more of a comic artist. They had set up themselves there, and it was quite successful for a number of years. Bill drew wonderful pencil and charcoal images of these great horses that used to pull the jute lorries in Dundee, and he was known for that. And other guys used to come in, friends who were still working for DC Thomson, particularly for me a Yorkshireman called George Blow, who had a tremendous ability to draw technical stuff. He must have painted the Forth Bridge more times than it’s ever been painted in actuality! He was great at railway engines. I remember he drew [German racing driver Rudolf] Caracciola driving a Mercedes Benz racer before the war. And he’d done the background with the crowd merged into a series of streaks like a photograph – brilliant concepts, they were. And of course, they never got their name on anything [at DC Thomson]. It was so bad, all that. Dudley Watkins was the only chap who had his name emblazoned on the drawings. So I never worked for them at any time.’
The Bayly-Souster artwork also includes four covers for the comic Captain Vigour (circa 1952/53) drawn by Jim Holdaway. The comic’s interiors were drawn by Philip Mendoza. The captain is a former Olympic champion turned official from the Central Olympic Committee who has escapades while travelling the Commonwealth in search of sporting talent. Kind of a cross between Indiana Jones and Seb Coe, then. The covers are wonderfully drawn, full of drama and detail, and Sydney remembers how much Holdaway’s work impressed him at the time.
SJ: ‘When we saw his drawings we realised that we had a lot to learn, because he just seemed to spring out of nowhere already fully bloomed. [The Captain Vigour covers] were very advanced for their time. Jim’s line work was very confident. The only other stuff that was really making its mark at that time was Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare [published in Eagle from 1950], which had broken the mould. Mind you, Jim was older than the rest of us, the handful of people that I joined up with, and so he had a little bit more experience. In fact you’ll probably see from the material you have that there was still room for improvement with him. With Modesty Blaise, he had gone from Captain Vigour to something even more subtle and clever.’
Perhaps the most interesting piece found among the Bayly-Souster artwork is a two-tiered science fiction strip titled Orion. Sydney confirms that this is the prototype of his celebrated Jeff Hawke newspaper strip, which he had brought to London hoping to sell to a national newspaper. It shows an alien spacecraft orbiting Earth, and a jet fighter being dispatched to investigate it – essentially the storyline that was eventually published in the Daily Express as the first Jeff Hawke episode in February 1954, down to the design of the spacecraft.
SJ: ‘Yes, that was my first essay into the thing. Of course, I was really just aping the Flash Gordon comic strip [created by Alex Raymond in 1934], and Hawke was a wee bit Flash Gordon at the beginning, apart from the opening sequence with him hitting the flying saucer. [In the Orion concept,] he’s running around in a cape and all that kind of thing. And I soon realised that, quite apart from not being able to draw like Alex Raymond at that time, it wasn’t going to go anywhere. It was going to be another thing caught in amber in a way, because it was a very established form of Ruritanian science fiction.’
When Sydney started at the Bayly-Souster Group, Eric Souster saw potential in the strip but thought it needed some refinement. Sydney made some changes, and Souster approached the Daily Express about possible publication.
RC: ‘When the Express took it on, were you still working for the Bayly-Souster Group, or were you contracted directly to the Express?’
SJ: ‘They were acting as kind of agents for me. But I know that I had an interview with the person involved at the Express, the chap that Eric had taken the stuff to there, and it transpired that Max Aitken, who was [Express owner Lord] Beaverbrook’s son, had flown in the Battle of Britain, and when he saw the RAF hats and aeroplanes looking like the real thing – and he was running the paper for his dad at that time – I think that was very instrumental in him taking it on. Later on, Hawke became very much an RAF character, although he had a wide brief for all the wild things he got up to. But yes, [Bayly-Souster] kick-started it in that way, but once it started running as a serial and I was doing everything on it, they agreed to let me go my own way. I occasionally did one or two things for them, but that became my magnum opus.’
SJ: ‘I kept working there for quite a while because they had a little group there. Apart from Jim Holdaway, a chap called Charlie Jack, another Scots fella, he was drawing stuff for Bayly-Souster, but more cowboys and things like that. He did preliminary work on Jeff Hawke Jnr [a children’s version of Hawke that appeared in the Junior Express weekly and was later drawn by Ferdinando Tacconi]. And Gary Keane, who did a historical series for the Daily Mail, Focus on Fact – things like the life of Churchill, very, very good black and white stuff. With other friends of mine – George Stokes, who drew Wes Slade [a western strip in the Sunday Express in the 60s and 70s] and Harry Bishop [who did Gun Law, an adaptation of the television western Gunsmoke for the Daily Express from 1956 until the late 1970s] – we did have a little band in a studio in Shoe Lane [off Fleet Street], but then it scattered, and we were working separately. These were the golden days: Fleet Street was a hive. The great thing was, you were speaking to guys who worked in Reuters, and other chaps working for the other newspapers, so it was a colony in a way, and we were rubbing off on each other. It’s a shame what happened to Fleet Street [i.e. its demise as the home of the British press], but I suppose it’s called progress (laughs)!’
RC: ‘What were the other jobs being put your way while you worked on Hawke?’
SJ: ‘Well, you’ll recognise that the Hawke got more dense in the drawing, more and more realistic – photographic I should say – and quite honestly it took me a week to do. Well, not exactly, but it was a full-time job. But what I did were occasional essays into what was happening in the world of science fact – the moon race and all that kind of thing. And the paper used to ask me occasionally to do a splash page on something like the Mercury spaceship link-up, and all that kind of thing. I’d do it with wash so it looked almost like a photograph, and they flagged it up as ‘by Sydney Jordan, creator of Jeff Hawke‘. Now, that became for me a life-belt because in the way my original contract [for Hawke] was constructed, they could at any time have taken it away and given it to someone else. So I was very lucky because that kind of nailed it as not necessarily being my property but being my creation. Because when you’re young and daft and all you want to do is draw and be smart with your comics, you’re not thinking about the future. I mean, nobody ever dreamt it would run for twenty years, it was just an amazing run!
RC: ‘Absolutely, yes. Could I go through a couple of other bits of artwork from the Bayly-Souster batch that appear possibly to be some of your work. There’s a single tier of panels from a science fiction comic, and someone’s pencilled ‘Hal Starr’ on the back, which is a strip that has been associated with you. [Hal Starr was featured in the title Strange Worlds, which was published as part of ‘Man’s World Comic Library’ in 1953]. Does that ring a bell with you?’
SJ: ‘Oh yes absolutely. In fact, if you look closely at that you can see the beginning of Jeff Hawke in the character. But that was the beginning of Hal Starr. I finally did a full-scale colour 40-page Hal Starr comic for Eppo [a weekly Dutch comic; the Hal Starr comic was published in 1988], and Hal was dark haired and not at all like Hawke, but that was the first time [since Dick Hercules] I’d done a serial, a comic page; I had become used to working in the little newspaper strip [format].’
RC: ‘We also have three individual tiers that seem to come from the same strip – a WWII aviation story with two pilots called Bats and Mac looking for a lost Dakota plane. Does that ring any bells with you?’
SJ: ‘Yes, it does. It must be mine, because Hawke went on to have a buddy called Mac. I really was feeling my way into that kind of thing. And of course, Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates [an influential US adventure comic strip published from 1934-46] was very much on my learning list, and Terry had his friend Charles. I was taking my lead from the greats, and it seemed a good idea to have a companion to Hawke’s rather prim stiff upper lip. I made Mac a Canadian, so he could be wise-cracking and what-not – all very primitive stuff, really (laughs).’
RC: ‘The last bits we’ve got, there are a couple of pages of one-off illustrations, called things like ‘Visitors from Space!’, which is talking about meteors, with a single illustration and a bit of text, that presumably filled in the odd pages in some of these Sports Cartoons comics. Would you have done any of those?’
SJ: ‘Oh yes, almost certainly. I did have the job of following the space stuff. I was so lucky that I was drawing at a time when the space age was just developing. That’s why I called Hawke ‘First Citizen of the Space Age’, which sounds kind of wild now, but at the time it made sense, you see. All of these things were leading to Hawke.’
The rest of the Bayly-Souster artwork is a miscellany of pieces from various Sports Cartoons/ Man’s World titles whose artists are unidentified. There is a two-page juvenile humour strip called Jeppy, which appears to have been published in Super-Sonic the Super Comic, a title about which I have found little information other than it was published around 1953/54 and the science fiction cover to issue 15 is signed ‘Jordan’. There are five single-page illustrations: two from Speed Kings Comic featuring the fastest car and train; two from Strange Worlds featuring ‘A Present Day Dragon!’ (about a land iguana) and ‘Visitors from Space!’ (mentioned above); and one from the title British Heroes featuring ‘Ships of War: the Old and New’ (about HMS Victory and HMS Vanguard – probably issue 8, which featured Nelson, in 1954).
The last bit of artwork is a humour strip called Johnny, Jungle Lord, drawn in ink and wash on an A2 sheet of tracing paper. It is unfinished – the lettering is not inked – and the loose nature of the drawing may indicate a rough initial draft of a strip. The artist is unknown.
Unfortunately, the museum did not receive any information with this batch of artwork about its provenance, but other non-comics artwork from the Bayly-Souster Group were sold at the same time, which were said to be ‘part of a portfolio of artworks sold by the family of Ernest Bendell-Bayly’. In addition, Sydney pointed out to me that Eric Souster died in late 2015, and so it is also possible the artwork came from his estate. Overall, the Bayly-Souster acquisition by the Comic Creators Project comprises a variety of attractive and interesting artwork, representing a little-known period of British comics publishing. With the inclusion of the early work of Mssrs Jordan and Holdaway, it is a fascinating and valuable addition to the Cartoon Museum’s collection of original comic artwork. We hope to put a selection on display in the museum shortly.
We would like to thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting our work at the Comic Creators Project.
James Chapman, British Comics: A Cultural History p.81/82, Reaktion Books, 2011.
Jeff Hawke’s Cosmos Vol. 1 No. 1, p. 6 (official magazine of the Jeff Hawke Club; contact them at www.jeffhawkeclub.co.uk).
Denis Gifford, Encyclopedia of Comic Characters, Longman, 1987.
Alan Clark, Dictionary of British Comic Artists, Writers and Editors, The British Library, 1998.
Denis Gifford, The Complete Catalogue of British Comics, Webb & Bower, 1985. (Covers of Sports Cartoons/Man’s World titles are included as illustrations 376 – 383, 400 and 401)
Covers from various Sports Cartoons/Man’s World titles can also be seen on the GCD website www.comics.org. (Some titles are listed as being published by Miller.)