Thursday, 19 November 2015

BUSTER-ING FOR A GOOD LAUGH

A month ago today I put up my post about #68 of Oink!, the final of six monthly issues and the end of an era of brilliantly original humour.  To me personally the comic was in its heyday when it was still a fortnightly, but it ended up losing pages and regular characters when Fleetway wanted to aim it at a younger readership and turned it into a weekly.  However, it grew in strength and ended up being a particularly fantastic weekly comic, albeit quite different to what had gone before.  Then with the monthlies it changed again when the publishers once more wished to alter the target audience, this time to an older teen and student market.  It was much thicker and went back to glossy paper, but was much less frequent and lost more regular strips and contributors, plus the dreaded reprints started to creep in too.  While it was still head-and-shoulders above any other humour comics out there for me personally, it wasn't the Oink! we'd all swarmed to and many jumped ship, resulting in sales slumping.

We can only imagine how long it would've lasted and how even greater it could've ended up if IPC, who saw Oink! as a hit and were very happy with its sales of 100,000 per issue on average, hadn't sold its comics division to Fleetway (or even if they'd just kept Oink!), instead letting the comic continue to develop that original format.  We'll never know.  The editorial team of Mark Rodgers, Tony Husband and Patrick Gallagher had wanted to extend the Oink! brand beyond the comic but instead #68 ended up being the final issue and, like Fleetway humour titles all seemed to do in the end, it folded into their number one comic of the day, Buster:

Cover by Tom Paterson

This issue of Buster was actually on sale at the same time as the last Oink! and, as you'll have read last time, seeing that above was the first I knew something was up, confirmed when I bought it and the last Oink!  But the readers of Buster already knew this was coming, as the previous week half the letters page was dominated by this:


While they're drawn by their respective artists, their speech and the use of the word "Funsters" to describe them doesn't really sit right, does it?  It feels more like three new-but-traditional characters are being brought to Buster for the first time rather than them coming from the anarchic sister title.  Were our three faves going to end up becoming traditional comic fare after so long?  We'll get to that.

Firstly, you'll notice how the merge is referenced on the cover.  Typically when a title merged into another it got a secondary billing on a temporary new title.  Such as 2000AD and Starlord, The Transformers and Action Force, or even Buster and Nipper or the still-to-come Buster and Whizzer & Chips, all with the cancelled comic's logo still sitting proud on the covers.  But Oink! wasn't granted this status on the cover for whatever reason.  Instead for only these four issues the readers were told there were Oink! stars inside by way of a tagline containing a drawn version of the logo, rather than the logo itself.  After these Buster returned to its regular covers without mention of the new recruits.

In preparation for this post Lew Stringer very kindly answered a few questions I had about the merge and, while neither of us are 100% certain of why the comic never had Oink! as part of the title, Lew made a good point which makes the most sense.  With WHSmith's stupid attitude towards the comic and them placing it on the top shelves, perhaps Fleetway didn't want to chance this happening to their top title.  It makes sense and I'd understand their reluctance if this was the case.

Here's the other three issues which included Tom Thug, Weedy Willy and Pete and his Pimple all being drawn by the Buster cover artists.  The first two are by the amazingly talented and always entertaining cartoonist Tom Paterson whose work on Oink! you can access by clicking on his name in the Stuff in the Sty section on the left there.  The final one, with Pete, was drawn by X-Ray Specs artist Mike Lacey, whose work I also included in the Beyond Oink! posts for Big Comic Fortnightly and Funny Fortnightly:


In that last issue Tom Paterson was on holiday and Mike took over the drawing of Buster, but he ended up shifted to the inside and Mike's own X-Ray Specs was promoted to the front and back covers.

(Lew explained how Tom Paterson, or possibly Jack Oliver, once told him they felt Tom Thug was too difficult to draw, until they imagined his head as a burger and went from there!)

But let's get on with the Oink! goodness shall we?  This post is simply going to be a quick look at what happened next for these three fan favourites and we'll start with Pete and his Pimple:


Unlike in Oink! the strips were all full-page entries every single week now, but I was always under the impression, either through cloudy memories or misinformation, that loads of other changes were enforced onto those who had joined the comic.  This simply wasn't the case and as Lew explained it was more like common sense.  For example, he'd first read Buster when he was six and reading it at the time when Oink! was cancelled, so he was well aware of the format and style and how it differed.

On a day-to-day basis very little changed as Lew still worked from home and spoke a lot with Buster's Allen Cummings over the phone in much the same way as he had with Mark Rodgers.  But nothing was enforced and instead Lew simply knew he couldn't show a pimple bursting and covering everyone with pus like we'd seen so much of in Oink!  It just wouldn't have worked here, but I'd always thought his pimple was never allowed to burst at all and upon reading these now in 2015 it seemed this was the case after the strip above.  Surely, previous to this those burglars would've been covered with slimy pus, sticking them to the pavement and unable to run away?

Maybe in Oink! but not necessarily because the giant zit could still burst in Buster, as I was pleasantly surprised to see (unlike the people of Oinktown! had been for those two and a half years) in two of the four strips in these issues!  Here's those highlights for you pig pals:



You'll notice the dogs are still squeaky clean and the person in the last panel is in silhouette form and this is a good example of how Lew adapted to the style of this comic while still keeping the essence and humour of the character.  I'm sure Buster readers were surprised when these happened and I'd like to think they proved a success in the laughter department.

Just to finish off my look at the Pete strips here's the last one and I have to say it's a little heartbreaking after all this time to see him reading this comic instead of a piggy pink one:


Pete would also cross over into regular character Thunderclap's strip, and a character Tom Thug had already met was joining in also.  Always drawn by Mike Green, Weedy Willy was scripted by many varied writers over the lifespan of Oink!  Now as a regular feature in Buster, one of Oink!'s co-creators/co-editors Mark Rodgers took over the helm of his stories permanently.

Mike's artwork really stands out in these comics because it's just so different to anything featured in a more traditional weekly.  While Pete and Tom would be introduced to a degree in their first appearances they still had complete stories, but Mark decided instead to give the new readers of Willy a step-by-step guide to what they could expect from future instalments:


In Oink! Weedy Willy could sometimes have a full page to himself, sometimes just a quick gag at his expense.  His format was always changing and this move to a set one seems to have robbed the strip of its impulsiveness a tad.  Even after reading only four of these it's already starting to feel like the character is going to have a limited run as the idea doesn't seem to have sturdy legs, just like Willy.

That may not make sense at first, but when we look back at Oink! and the variety of writers, sizes of strip, different features and gags he was used for he was in his element.  Give him a full-page story every single issue and those highly original, fresh jokes are being used up very quickly.  Don't get me wrong, these are still very enjoyable but I can understand why a few months later Willy made his last comics appearance.  Such a shame, but Buster was never going to be able to feed him the variety of formats he had in Oink!:


In the first issue of the merge Buster himself welcomed pig pals with this simple little introduction to his letters page:


The problem was this is exactly what he didn't do enough of, or rather what the comic didn't do enough of; keep me laughing.  I'd been weened on a diet of pigs, plops, pus, spoofs, GBH, Ian Jackson, Tony Husband, ugly kids, randomness and Frank Sidebottom to name but a few.  While some regular humour weeklies raised plenty of smiles only Oink! had convinced me to place a regular order, and it was the only place where I was literally laughing out loud every single issue.

The first issue of Buster I bought was also my last, unfortunately.  I'm not meaning to take away from the talented individuals behind the top-selling comic, not at all.  Hundreds of thousands of kids enjoyed the antics of The Winners, Roys ToysBirdman and Chicken, Melvyn's Mirror and all the rest.  Indeed, I've raved this year about the reprint title Big Comic Fortnightly which featured classic strips of many Buster characters and which I was already reading by this stage.

When Oink! finished there was a giant hole in my reading.  This was already partially plugged by the aforementioned BCF, Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends and The Real Ghostbusters.  Add to this the fact the preview issue of Wildcat had come free with that final Oink!, seeming so cool to my young eyes, I had to make a decision.  I'd love to say it was a tough one but it was all rather easy.

I loved the fact there could be a weekly dose of these three characters again, but upon reading the rest of the comic I just wasn't feeling it.  Some of it made me smile, but it didn't make me giggle as BCF did and it certainly didn't surprise me and make me guffaw as Uncle Pigg's masterpiece had.  Reading it now it's clear it's a class act and a top quality read, though still not really my cup of tea; it was simply for a different audience to me.  I was the audience that other humour comics hadn't catered for after all; kids like myself were the reason Oink! had existed in the first place.  Even though it was still cheaper in 1988 than Oink! had ever been, I couldn't justify asking my parents to buy it every week for the sake of three pages and so instead I pleaded for the action-fest of Wildcat for 40p every two weeks instead.

It was a sad end to my time with these characters but I still had the annual and a special to look forward to, I was collecting other completely different comics but it was all thanks to Oink! and I'd just added another one to the plate.  They were exciting times and so I bid adieu to Pete, Willy and Tom.

But speaking of Tom...

I've deliberately left him to last as it would seem the younger Buster readers were quite taken with Mr Thug!  As mentioned above Willy didn't last too long in these pages and unfortunately Pete wasn't a great hit with the younger, clean-complexion readers either.  Later on in the 1990s another Oink! character (though one who had made only a couple of appearances) Specky Hector the Comics Collector turned up with a comical guide (and Lew would also draw Mark Rodgers' Vampire Brats creation) but it was Tom Thug himself who proved a massive success.  So successful that Lew ended up creating new adventures for him right up until July 1996 when the comic went all-reprint for its final few years.  Altogether, between Oink! and Buster there's a whopping 444 strips out there for this favourite comics character of mine; that's just incredible!

It'd certainly make for a hugely entertaining regular reprint title, especially for Oink! fans who may never have read all those following years of mishaps.  Not that this is a hint in any way at all to Lew*.

As I mentioned before Tom's strips would revert to his schooldays (or "Skooldays") which fits in very nicely considering the comic's main target audience.  There may have been plenty of readers of both comics who may been bullied to some degree at school and to see such a bully get his comeuppance every single week kept them coming back for more and more.  Here's one of those first strips after the merge:


The small extra at the bottom feels very Oink!-like I have to say.

Apart from a few things such as a younger Tom, his cat Satan never getting mentioned by name and (an example given to me by Lew) Tom only looking queasy when he felt like being sick instead of actually throwing up(!), he was pretty much the exact same character we'd grown to love in Oink!  Even though he'd end up appearing in so many more issues of the latter comic to me he's still more associated with Oink!  Whether that's because I never collected Buster, or just because he originated there, or simply because Oink!'s format leant itself to all manner of strip sizes, special stories and punishments for Tom, he's Oink! through-and-through and I'd love the chance to read all those years of missed stories:


In the final Tom strip Pete was also included in the background all cured of his pimples and even Lew himself and his pet dog appeared in a panel.  In the final issue of Buster one page of new content appeared on the back cover, drawn by Jack Oliver and on it Tom had finally turned himself around but Lew is quick to say this isn't canon, I'm very glad to say.  He'd also cross over with Pete a couple of times (which you can read about here at Lew's own comics blog), there'd be a free Tom Thug badge and he'd make the cover in a bid to take over an issue.  Buster readers would also see some wonderful full-colour strips at Christmas and Halloween amongst other occasions.  It was clear he was a huge star!

Oink!'s legacy lived on through Tom for many years but it's all coming to an end here on the blog for now.  However, I'm not quite finished with the regular scans just yet, so come back next month for two posts covering the second annual, which I believe will round off my little project perfectly.  You can find out when these are going to be published in a special Christmas post right here on Tuesday 1st December.  See you then folks.

* yes it is


6 comments:

John Pitt said...

Should have been "THE BUSTER and OINK!"

STEPHEN ARCHER said...

Funnily enough I had virtually the opposite perspective to you. Having read Buster since 1980 I had a strong fondness for it, and it seemed inappropriate for the comparatively anarchic Oink characters to join the gang. Was this better than Oink fading away to just holidays specials and annuals and happy memories? Of course it was. Something had to happen to some of the characters I suppose, and there was only Whizzer & Chips as an alternative. (Within six months it perfunctorily picked up the cheque for Scouse Mouse, an abysmal comic. Yes, I really am a dyed-in-the-wool comic lover but there’re a few I haven’t any time for, looking over my shoulder twenty-plus years!) I agree that it was a shame that Poor old Willy basically turned into Walter from The Beano, the very type of character he originally parodied

STEPHEN ARCHER said...

Without wishing to insult your arithmetical powers, aren’t there THREE more Oink Specials for you to cover not two? Witness for the defence: http://comicsuk.co.uk/specials.php?ComicTitleID=126. I’ll be pig sick if given one is missed out…

Phil Boyce said...

Hi John, while I agree I do also see why Fleetway wouldn't have done so if the fear of WHSmith top-shelving it was indeed a factor, though we can't be sure. Although, it really was like three characters joining rather than the comics merging. Oink! was so much more of a complete package than three characters, no matter how great they were. Oink! was a completely different experience in everything from its regulars to the one-offs, spoofs, photo-strips, madverts, its random nature etc. in every single way and I think calling it Buster and Oink! wouldn't really have been that accurate in hindsight.

Stephen, I'm confused, I never said anywhere here there were only two specials to come. As I've mentioned elsewhere in the blog there are three to come after the last annual. In this post the only time I mentioned any of them was to say at this point in the run originally all we readers were aware of was the annual and that this would be followed by a summer special in 1988.

STEPHEN ARCHER said...

Sorry, my bad; had other things on my mind. Glad to see you’re on the case; saves me coming round to chuck a bucket of pigswill over you! Actually beyond the fact that for most of IPC’s long-lost comics (Shiver & Shake, Cor, etc.) yearly revivals in holiday special format was now well in the past, it was somehow appropriate that Oink breathed its last in this formal in 1990. I tend to think of Oink ripping down convention like The Young Ones (Vyvyan tearing up a Good Life intro, etc.) The comics industry had changed so it was doubtful that this format would have been sustainable for Oink for long, but to me it was too alive and vital to have been given the treatment that the above-named titles took for granted for so long. Viva Oink!

Phil Boyce said...

When writing up Wildcat, which started off the back of the free preview issue given away at the time of the last Oink!, I note it also had a holiday and winter special in the same way as Oink! did during 1989 even though it was cancelled early that year. The winter special was even of the same ilk, with the glossy thick cover, shiny interior paper and price tag to match.