The ‘forgotten’ world of the Picture Libraries

10th May 2022

While today's comic books are published in a few recognisable formats, they once came in all shapes and sizes. In another look at the history of classic British comics, David McDonald focuses on the once-popular but now almost extinct 'library' format and the thrill of finding new titles in the age before the internet...

Growing up in the early eighties, the newsagents was not the only place to get comics, there was the thriving schoolyard economy where comics had a particular currency!  One could swop a well-thumbed issue that was of no interest for various contraband like sweets, Panini football stickers - and other comics, of course! 

These trades usually threw up some interesting items, and one trade in particular brought the Top Secret Holiday Special and Space Picture Library Holiday Special into my hands, I can't remember the exact trade but I was very pleased!

I was familiar with the monthly War and Battle Picture library, but these chunky 192-page Holiday Specials were a revelation. Top Secret was full of secret agent action, giving me my 'James Bond' fix, and the Space Library was clearly old school sci-fi. I didn't need the 'previously published' notice inside to know it was old, but the square jawed heroic adventures of Jet Ace Logan, superbly drawn by John Gilliat, was a perfect juxtaposition to the violent antihero action I was just starting to enjoy in 2000 AD.

I continued to pick up the Holiday Specials whenever I came across them, and in one batch a stray title showed up that I had never seen before: The Fleetway Super Library, Stupendous Series - The Melody of Crime No. 24.  A mouthful of a title, but this was different to the others. Clearly older with its pre decimal 1/6d price tag and featuring 'The Spider' from Lion comic in a complete tale. 

The amount of information I had at the time on this series was little, but over the years I did manage to piece together more. There were three separate series: The Stupendous, Secret Agent, and Frontline. Two per month of each series were available, which included new self-contained stories. 

They featured some characters that were already well established in weekly comics, so The Stupendous series alternated each issue with 'The Spider' from Lion and 'The Steel Claw' from Valiant. Future IPC juvenile chief Gil Page was the editor of the Stupendous series and wrote 'The Steel Claw' in issues 7 and 13.

The Secret Agent series featured the character Barracuda from Lion and a new character in Johnny Nero in alternate issues. The Frontline series featured top war action with Maddock’s Marauders and Ironside. 

The series lasted a little over a year starting in 1967.  It is great to see The Treasury of British Comics collecting the first two Spider stories from The Stupendous series in their new collection The Spider - Crime Unlimited.

The Fleetway Super Library wasn't the only innovative format that was tried. Ted Bensburg was the man in charge of the Picture Libraries, and under his watch, and assisted by a team of editors and art editors, dozens of titles were published each month. 

The Super Library Holiday Special was a giant 448-page mix of reprints and the biggest library published, but The Giant War Library is probably the most unusual. Its format was the same width as a standard picture library, but twice the height and saddle-stitched with a wraparound cover. Writer and editor Terry Magee started his career working in the picture library department and he recalls working on The Giant War Picture Library:

"I wrote some one-page factual picture-strips in the centre of the Giant War Picture Library. They were titled Tirpitz in No. 52, Tarawa in No. 56, Matapan in No. 60, Singapore in No. 62, Guadalcanal in No. 72, Stalingrad in No. 76.   They were my first writing jobs in comics, given to me by Ted Bensberg.  They weren't drawn by an artist, I put it together pictorially from former issues of War/Battle Picture Library and the pasteups were done by Dave Jones, an art assistant on the War Libraries.  One of (the artists) in Giant Library) was Fred Holmes - Web of Death.  I never met Fred Holmes, but his style was very British and antiquated, which gave it charm, lots of cross-hatching. I´ve always liked his art because of that.”

Another Fleetway stalwart to cut his teeth on the picture libraries was David Hunt, Editor of Scorcher, Battle, Eagle and many more. He told me of his time in the library department:

“Lone Rider and Cowboy Picture is, believe it or not, 60+ years ago for me … GULP!!!! I started with Fleetway Publications in 1961 under the editorship of Frank Capern on the Western titles but, in reality, I was little more than the office junior for the Juvenile Department. My first editorial job was sticking the page numbers onto the Library pages and I recall taking great delight in buying a copy of the first Lone Rider issue I’d worked on and viewing those numbers with much creative pride.At that time the Libraries were big business for the company and on the 5th Floor of New Fleetway House the following Libraries were produced - Thriller, Air Ace, Sexton Blake, War, Battle, Cowboy and Lone Rider. Ted Bensberg and his team produced all the WW2 Libraries.”

Reading through the libraries that Fleetway published, it's clear that the titles were aimed at an older reader than the weeklies. The stories were more sophisticated, perhaps even adult in tone, but never straying into anything that might raise eyebrows or cause controversy. Even the ads on the back of the libraries were for engagement rings, home study courses and postal guitar lessons!

War and adventure titles were not the only genre that Fleetway published in the Picture Library format, romance titles were also abundant; titles like Love Story racked up over 1,600 issues and lasted until 1980. At one point there were eight monthly issues of Love Story available. Other titles like Oracle, Mirabel and Real Life brought monthly tales of love and loss to an eager readership - now quite hard to find. However, in the few examples that I do have, the covers really are amazing and again, definitely aimed at an older readership.

These romance titles were not produced in Ted Benburg’s Picture Library department but in the girl’s fiction section. Terry Magee recalled that these were put together in the old Fleetway House, in the same office as romance titles like Valentine and Roxy, under editor Dick Lewis. 

Some weekly titles also had spin off Picture Libraries - titles like Lion, Valiant, Tiger, Girl, June, and even the humour titles like Whizzer and Chips and Buster had libraries. Perhaps surprisingly with 2000 AD's popularity it never had a library. Kevin O'Neill told me when he worked editorially on 2000 AD that he hoped it might spin off a library series of some sort, unfortunately he was the only fan of the format in the office so it never happened, which is a pity - ‘Nemesis Library - Deviant Stories in Pictures’ could have been a winner!

The picture library format is all but gone. DC Thomson's Commando is the last man standing for the format and still going strong.

So, while the schoolyard days are long gone, the thrill of picking up a previously unknown comic in a second-hand bookshop has not diminished. The monthly Treasury releases add to that thrill with their range of brilliant collections.

Along with The Spider collection the Treasury has also released the Thriller Picture Library’s John Steel Special, with glorious Luis Bermejo art expertly coloured by Pippa Bowland for the new edition in 2020. The Book Palace, under licence from The Treasury of British Comics, has issued several beautifully produced Library collections under the 'Fleetway Picture Library Classics brand'.

And 'The War Libraries Index' by David Roach and Steve Holland and 'The Thriller Library Index' by David Ashford and Steve Holland, both published by Book Palace Books, are a great resource on Fleetway libraries.

With thanks to Terry Magee, David Hunt, Kevin O'Neill, David Roach, Doug Brain and Mary McDonald.

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.