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Saturday, 2 April 2011


Keith Chapman is better known to Archive readers as Chap O'Keefe, author of a series of hugely popular western novels - his character Misfit Lil is a particular favourite around these parts, but as well as being an accomplished novelist Keith has an interesting background in comic books.

For the first of three posts from Keith, the Archive asked Keith how it was he became involved in comic books in the first place.

 As a youngster in the 1950s I'd always 

the predominantly text-story weeklies, 
like Champion, Rover, Wizard, 

Adventure and Hotspur, plus the novels 
published monthly in the Sexton 

Blake Library detective series and, for a few short years, the Western 

Library. This was probably a budgetary choice. Pocket money lasted 

longer if you didn't spend it on comics that were read in much shorter 

time. With the papers that had just one or two illustrations per item, 

you could imagine your own pictures as a story unravelled rather than 

have artists draw them for you step by step. The plots were roughly the 

same as in the new comics. Roy of the Rovers in the early Tiger comic 

was very similar to Danny of the Dazzlers in the Champion. No surprise 

there. Stories and scripts were written by the same people.


When I was in my last school term in what was then called the 

second-year sixth, I was supposedly working toward a Cambridge 

University entrance exam. I'd also started writing articles for what 

we'd now think of as a fanzine, Herbert Leckenby's Collectors' Digest. 

And I wrote letters that appeared on "mailbag" pages in the magazines I 

read. It was this that brought me to the attention at Fleetway House of 

W. Howard (Bill) Baker, editor of the Sexton Blake Library. I think he 

liked the review I wrote of Murder at Site 3, a B-movie based on one of 

his Sexton Blake books.


Anyway, he had an opening in his office for a junior staff member. His 

assistant, Michael Moorcock, thought of as a bit of a young maverick and 

a hippie, was off to broaden his experience in Scandinavia and had 

started to develop his career as a fiction writer in Science Fantasy 

magazine with his Elric stories.


Besides working as a sub-editor on the two Sexton Blake novels a month, 

I would also be expected to do duties occasionally on other titles 

belonging to the group. By this stage, 1961, these were mainly juvenile 

comics. I was interviewed by the group's Managing Editor, Alf Wallace, 

and offered a job at the wage of £7. 4s. 9d a week. It wasn't much, but 

the opportunity to get into Fleetway House straight from school was 

tempting. After doing 0-levels and A-levels, more years of studying and 

examinations, even if they were at Cambridge University, seemed daunting 

rather than exciting. My parents, my sister and I lived in a house 

rented from a local council. In the class-structured British society of 

those days, we would have been regarded as "working class", although my 

father was a qualified machine-tool maker. Despite scholarships and 

other funding, university education for me would cost the family some 

money, and leave me with none at all to do the things a young man likes 

to do in the way of buying a car and having some social life.


In retrospect, it might not have been the wisest decision, but at 18 I 

opted for Sexton Blake rather than aiming for Cambridge.


At Fleetway, it became very apparent that although a new house policy 

didn't encourage it, many of the editors moonlighted as contributors to 

their own or their colleagues' publications. Alf Wallace's friendly and 

charming secretary, Hazel, helped me on to the freelance writing road 

with the offer a near-new Royal portable typewriter, minus its case, for 



Group script editor Ken Mennell tried to instruct me on how to write 

scripts for war picture libraries -- for example, Air Ace -- but a 

working day at the office was fairly mundane. I found myself reading 

Sexton Blake submissions and proofs, copy-editing, writing new titles 

and blurbs, running the readers' letters pages, keeping editorial 

ledgers and liaising with the accounts department over payments to 



One big snag was clearly going to be the unionised approach to pay and 

promotion. Although I was doing creative work, I was classified as a 

"clerk" for a probationary period , and after that had a five-year 

ladder to climb to a senior wage as a member of the NUJ.


But it was a pleasant experience in many respects. I shared many a lunch 

break with young people who went on to make their mark in the comics of 

the future. Barrie Tomlinson eventually became a Tiger and New Eagle 

editor, an IPC group editor, and a Roy of the Rovers writer. Doug Church 

was a 2000 AD art editor. Peter Stewart, with whom I shared an office, 

was destined to be editor of Shoot, a top soccer paper. A few months 

after I joined Fleetway, Pete's long-time friend Dave Hunt also came 

along, and in time he edited several comics for IPC, including Battle 

Picture Weekly.


After about a year, it became clear Sexton Blake's days at Fleetway were 

numbered and my future was likely to be as just one of a number of 

juniors working on the many comics, and slowly up that pay scale on the 

basis of time served. Any competitive advantages I had by way of my 

knowledge of the Blake "bible" and of copy-editing text would be lost.


Then an ad appeared in the World's Press News, which was the place to 

look for "situations vacant" on the periodicals scene. Micron 

Publications were looking for an editor for their comic book lines. 

These were lookalikes of Fleetway "picture library" comic books, the 

main one being Combat Picture Library. The company had been founded a 

few years earlier as G. M. Smith Publishing by Ron Maiden and Mike 

Budge, who had worked in the general administration offices at Fleetway. 

The story went that some money had been put up by an aunt and they'd 

gone into "backstreet" publishing on their own account.


I had a word with fellow Fleetway staffer Doug Church, who drew in his 

own time for rival Combat and had earlier worked for G. M. Smith 

full-time, if I remember correctly. It seemed you'd need to be an 

all-rounder, since the staff was naturally small compared to Fleetway's, 

and the hours might work out longer than anticipated and the 

responsibilities wider. But Micron had no pay scales  based on 

seniority. If you worked as an editor, you would be recognised and paid as one.


I found out later that the Micron opportunity appealed to many -- I was 

far from the only editorial person at Fleetway who applied for the job. 

But I got it, and that was how I initially became involved in comic 

books. I think what worked hugely in my favour was that as well as 

making an application for the editorial post, I  bashed out a 135-frame 

Combat Picture Library script on my Royal typewriter over the weekend 

and submitted that, too! The payment rate was half Fleetway's, but it, 

the promise of more scriptwriting assignments, and the suddenly boosted 

day-job pay were riches at the time.

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