When you spot a comic with snow and holly on the logo, you know immediately what you’re looking at. In another look at the history of classic British comics, David McDonald explores that British comic institution – the Christmas cover!
It’s a tradition is almost as old as comics themselves, with Comic Cuts being one of the very first comic covers to sport the snowy logo and festive theme on the cover of its thirty-second issue, way back in December 20th 1890.
Christmas was the great leveller in terms of holidays – almost everyone celebrated it, rich, poor, religious or non-believers – and Christmas covers soon became ubiquitous across all comics and story papers. But they really came into their own with the advent of colour printing and when comics started using it in the early twentieth century. The brightly coloured depictions of Christmas tradition on the covers, before the coming of television and cinema, must have been a wonderful sight on the corner shops shelves in that pre-electrified world. The colour tabloid covers of titles like Rainbow and Tiger Tims glorious featured a run of festive covers, as did adventure and girls comics into the nineteen twenties and thirties, some in colour, some in duotone and others in plain black and white.
World War Two and the accompanying paper shortages saw a lot of comics cancelled or reduced in size, but there still were some memorable covers. Interestingly, the war changed the tone of some Christmas covers – gone are the gifts and in with the 'slap up meal’, with wartime food rationing tightening its grip Christmas pudding and mash potatoes captured the imagination far better than a toy in those lean times.
The covers of the seventies and eighties are the era of covers I’m most familiar with. My local newsagents, John Hanley’s, was a small sweet shop with a few groceries and cigarettes, the type of shop that was then common across the UK and Ireland. It had one wall totally dedicated to magazines, and the bottom shelf was reserved for comics. The week before Christmas the full bottom shelf, wall to wall, was packed with festive comics: humour, adventure, girls’, sport, all but a few sported snow covered logos, holly and festive goings-on on their covers. Each title would have its own ‘take’ on the holidays. The humour titles would have Santa and Christmas Pudding, 2000 AD could have Santa being arrested by Dredd and Battle had Charley Bourne playing football with the Germans.
One editor was responsible for a large amount of the covers during this time and went out of his way to make them an ‘event’ and that’s Tiger and Roy of the Rovers editor: Barrie Tomlinson. He was also responsible for getting numerous celebrities on the cover of his comics for Christmas, including cricketer Ian Botham, comedian Eric Morecambe and Ernie, former Olympic gymnast Suzanne Dando, presenter Henry Kenny and many others. I asked Barrie about the Christmas covers, and one in particular, featuring boxing star Henry Cooper, who appeared on the cover of Tiger in full Santa garb…
’I was particularly keen on Christmas covers and always tried to arrange something special,’ said Barrie. ‘I had good success at getting celebs to appear on the Christmas covers and that was always great fun. Snow on the masthead was also something I always insisted upon!
‘As I got more experienced at editing, I tried to make the Christmas covers really special. I’d start planning a cover in the early autumn, decide who I wanted to feature and then contact the celebrity directly. Asking for something for Tiger, Roy of the Rovers or Eagle was usually easy, as the titles were well known and had a good reputation. And maybe I did have a little skill in persuading people.
‘For the Henry Cooper feature, I contacted him directly and was delighted when he agreed to appear. We went to his apartment in north London, armed with a Christmas tree and a Father Christmas outfit. We got lots of Christmas photos for Tiger, including Henry delivering his famous left hook to my chin. As a bonus, I also organised some photos to go into Eagle, showing Henry smashing a hole in a copy of Eagle. We had, of course, previously cut out the hole in the office. It was the same with all the celebrities we featured in the comics, we never paid any money and none was ever asked for. It might be a bit different now!’
Interestingly, Barrie says the Christmas covers were not done as a sales promotion and nor were they mandatory – it was left to individual editors whether there was one and what it was. Often titles like Battle and Action did not have a Christmas cover at all, other than a ‘Merry Christmas, Readers' masthead.
Christmas wasn’t the only holiday to be given a special cover on comics. Easter also got a look in but not quite as often as Christmas. Being a movable feast it would have been harder to schedule. I even spotted ‘Whitsun’ getting a mention on a cover masthead (yes, I had to Google it!)
The New Year covers are also worth a mention, not as common as the Christmas covers, scheduling often meant that the issues would be out after New Year so it would be missed. But they are the most common holiday cover after the Christmas editions. The stories inside, especially in the humour comics often featured Father Time as an old man with the scythe and the 'New Year Baby' sitting at his feet. There would usually be a montage of the characters of the comic singing ‘Auld Lang Saine’ and a handsome stranger with a lump of coal! Mike Western did a number of beautifully crafted New Year covers for Tiger, and Krazy often had its own zany take on it.
Christmas covers over the last century and more chart the changes in gifts, food, decorations, and even in the depiction of Santa Claus himself, but also they show that the meaning of the holiday has stayed the same, family, friends and a break from the humdrum!
David McDonald is the publisher of Hibernia Comics and editor of Hibernia’s collections of classic British comics, titles include The Tower King, Doomlord, The Angry Planet and The Indestructible Man. He is also the author of the Comic Archive series exploring British comics through interviews and articles. Hibernia’s titles can be bought here www.comicsy.co.uk/hibernia. Follow him on Twitter @hiberniabooks and Facebook @HiberniaComics
All opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Rebellion, its owners, or its employees.