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Topper

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Topper3a

A rare glimpse of Topper issue 3 (1953). Artwork by Dudley Watkins. That facial closeup on frame 11 is unrecognisable, but embryonic and fascinating

Topper Book
Topper was launched by D.C. Thomson on 7th February 1953 as a tabloid-sized comic, a dramatic contrast to the smaller Beano and Dandy. To mark the occasion, the first issue carried a gift, the dramatically named 'Big Crack Bang'.

Features in the early issues included Mickey the Monkey (the comic's long running cover star in many later issues) by Dudley D Watkins, The Fighting Frasers by Bill Holroyd, Beryl the Peril by David Law (Beryl would remain a fixture throughout Topper's run) and Paddy Brennan's Flip McCoy. There were also reprints of Watkins' Treasure Island strip from The People's Journal. Later Watkins reprints throughout the fifties included Kidnapped and Robinson Crusoe, and later King Solomon's Mines, Allan Quatermain and Oliver Twist.

The comic absorbed short-lived stable mate Buzz with issue #1145 in January 1975, and later Sparky with issue #1277 (July 1977). With issue #1440 the comic's dimensions shrank to the same size as Beano and Dandy, and the title was eventually cancelled after 1963 issues in September 1990, in the same week as its sister title Beezer. The two titles were relaunched as a combined title, Beezer & Topper, the following week, and this ran for a further 153 issues until August 1993.

Other prominent characters and strips to have appeared in Topper include Foxy, Figaro, Captain Bungle, Tiny, Send for Kelly, The Whizzers from Ozz, Desert Island Dick, Splodge, Thor Thumb, The Inky Top Imps, Whistling Billy, Julius Cheeser, Nancy, Big Fat Boko, Big Uggy, Willy Nilly, Tricky Dicky, Danny's Tranny and The Topper Twins.

Although the central premise of the comic offered up evergreen cartoon creations lapped up en-masse by the comic-reading public, it has to be said that Topper shared with Beezer a desire to release truly epic tales of devastation and destruction right from the outset, and such thrilling melodramas were by and large penned by Ron Smith and Ken Hunter in the main. Typical examples within this richly-mined field included the prehistoric high-jinks of a pterodactyl unleashed into Sixties Britain in the shape of Back to Zero! and also the hyper-highjinks of Smith's Three Eggs in a Basket, which illustrated much danger and mayhem high above the Old West in 19th-century America. These spectacularly-rendered tales were always depicted as free of word-balloons, with older-style captions inserted along the bottom of the frames.

Much of the credit to the sheer quality of much of Topper's output throughout the Sixties and beyond must surely go to Smith and Hunter: their epic artwork injected a real patina of high-jinks and hyperdrama into the mix, with astonishing visuals unmatched by many other comics of the era, with the exception, perhaps, of TV 21, which benefited from vastly improved paperstock and photo-gravure technique (and a hefty sevenpenny pricetag to boot!) Ken Hunter in particular was adept at both high drama and slapstick comedy, and his highly accomplished and polished work on Big Fat Boko and Sir Laughalot upped the quality stakes, ensuring excellent value for money for Topper readers.

The Sixties in general may be regarded as the peak of the comic's powers, with many talented artists like Charlie Grigg (Foxy) and George Drysdale (Big Uggy, a prehistoric comedy complete with Dopeydocus the dinosaur) at the summit of their creative powers. Topper clearly benefited from the sterling work of Paddy Brennan, whose Whizzers from Ozz strip in particular still strikes a chord with many original readers. The first series of this strip (with searing, dramatic visuals of Krik and Krak's soaring 'flying hovercar' serving up much dynamic visuals) debuted in 1966.

The comic was never backwards at flirting with surrealism, with outer-space/time-travelling pastiches like Old Batty (1966-69) providing diverse, stream-of-conciousness thrills and eccentric spills, easily on-par with much of Odham's output during the same decade. Delightful diversions continued to appear via more lesser-remembered contributions, like the Viz-soundalike Whiskery Dicks and the charmingly whimsical Toad in the Hole, both lucidly entertaining sixties entries from the pen-nib of Michael Barratt.

In Dec 1973, Topper unleashed its most bizarre concept in the name of Plum Duffy, a low-key but astonishing recounting of the trials and tribulations of a humanized, walking, talking Christmas Pudding, forever on the run from desperado mercenary pursuers. The fact that the central character spoke directly to the reader in a matter-of-fact manner simply added to the welcome unreality. This hyper-bizarre strip ran for around 6 months.

The early seventies yielded another memorable strip: Ghastly Manor, a luridly comical horror pastiche, rare within D.C. Thomson output of the period, and more along the lines of IPC comic-horror fare of this era. Unlike the full-blooded horrors of Shiver and Shake, Monster Fun, etc, this strip was more cuddly and appealing in its depiction of cartoon horror, but nevertheless produced unforgettable horror-icon imagery in the shape of salivating ogres and manically leaping skeletons. This was another typically skewed concept unique within the pages of Topper.

Further unique and unusual strips manifested in the shape of Jiffy and the Glyphs (a slightly disturbing 1969 entry depicting the unleashing of tiny, Egyptian-like figures from within an ancient parchment) and 1970 wrought the queasily-memorable Lumbering Jack, an eerily comic depiction of a 19th-century bobby brought back to life to deal with the social problems of yobbish youths in the very early 70s. Although the comic undoubtedly tried out modern and contemporary fare in this period, more traditional entries like Danny's Tranny were also introduced in this era, and this concept proved to be another long-lasting winner. Indeed, this idea proved successful enough to warrant promotion to the prized front cover for a while in the mid-seventies.

Around 1971, Topper underwent a noticeable change in overall comedy direction, with several of its characters addressing the readership directly. This approach had been the subject of sporadic experimentation in the past, but newer strips like Splodge positively thrived on this outlook. It gave the paper an identity wholly separate from Beezer within the same period: the latter seemed a tad stale and conservative in comparison over 1971-3. Possibly the loss of Watkins and Davey Law over the 1969-70 era necessitated a direct change of approach in the reincarnations of Mickey the Monkey and Beryl the Peril during this point in time.

Topper excelled in updating many of its previous successes during the early seventies, with the likes of The Whizzers from Ozz striking out into new tangents, introducing newer threats from villains from their home planet, and the selfsame artist Paddy Brennan turning out the Amazing Peet, another deliciously eccentric diversion which debuted in 1973. Send for Kelly also upgraded from the previous back-page slot, occupying the coveted and desirable centre-pages, in expanded widescreen-like frames that clearly differentiated this work from the more compactly-realized Beano and Dandy of the same timeframe. Send for Kelly diversified into memorable close-up characterizations of exotic — if often racially stereotyped — villains as a result of this experimentation , and this spy-strip also scooped the highly-prized front-cover status at some point in 1973.

Lesser-remembered (but suitably manic nevertheless) entries from this era included Vic Neill's demented piggery-farce Piggy Banks, Andrew Christine's very topical Top of the Flops, and also George Martin's comically inventive Dreamboat Bill. Although these creations could hardly be described as 'household names' within Topper's proud history, they do, however, represent a period of healthy experimentation that sustained much of the comic's 'reason-to-be' during this chequered period.

All throughout these trial-and-tribulation years ran the curious phenomenon of an imported US strip, Nancy (by Ernie Bushmiller). Even when seen today, this strip appears highly incongruous and decidedly jarring within a comic from the D.C. Thomson stable, as the company was so clearly independent — internal adverts in these early days promoted other D.C. Thomson comics only. Nancy stuck out like a sore thumb, being clearly an American 'intrusion' into this uniquely British comic. It was also signed by Bushmiller in the opening logo, another noticeable departure from the accepted D.C. Thomson way of doing such things. This strip always looked noticeably bland, possibly deliberately so. However, there was often a clever and imaginative visual punchline in the final frame, so all was certainly not lost within this strip's existence. Nancy was also remarkable in its depiction of the central character's decidedly well-endowed guardian, depicted as a sexually attractive, alluring young woman, Aunt Fritzi, in a manner that would surely be deemed as unacceptable by a 'regular' D.C. Thomson cartoonist.

Another highly-memorable facet of Topper's output was the long-running 'three-in-one' multistrip page, the most successful of which was in all likelihood the Julius Cheeser/Desert Island Dick/King Gussie version which ran during the latter sixtie. Julius Cheeser by George Martin was a sort of cut-price Tom and Jerry with short, sharp gags. For some reason, this extremely simple concept has proved an unforgettable entry, though not quite as memorable as Tom Bannister's Desert Island Dick, which, even when revisited today, exhibits a charm and zest that is totally endearing. Winning elements include hyper-imaginative intrusions from such imaginative diversions such as flying saucers, endless variations on this apparently limiting theme, and Dick's loyal, but sometimes mocking sidekick Olly, who often 'thought aloud' to endless comic delight. Again, here was a very simple concept handled with sufficient skill to make it truly unforgettable to many original readers. The final of the three strips of this colour page was King Gussie, probably the most down-to-earth of the three entries: the landed gentleman Gussie resided in a spacious, draughty castle complete with footmen, yet this surrounding world seemed to consist of mundane neighbours, and the gags depicted were invariably of the domestic, everyday type.

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