Wednesday, 10 September 2008

British Comics part 4 - Frank Bellamy

Frank Bellamy (1917 - 1976)

Frank Bellamy was born in Kettering, Northampton in 1917. As a youngster, his early artistic influences came from all the juvenile comics that he read in his childhood, Rainbow and Chips, but it was the old American Sunday comic sections that really provoked an interest in adventure strips. He loved the Tarzan strips of Hal Foster and much preferred these rather than the static picture stories that were found in British comics in the 1920s and ‘30s. He was also a big fan of the American ‘jungle strips’ where the depiction of African fauna was a large influence. Bellamy loved the big cats and other animals that were to be found in Africa.

After leaving school Frank went to work in an art studio but, with the second World War looming, it was not long before he got his call up papers and the war put paid to his artistic dreams. But only for the duration of the war.

When the war ended, Bellamy moved to London, where he began work his way round every studio until he found himself a job. Eventually, Norfolk Studios recognised his talent and he was offered a job with them.

He started work doing spot illustrations for magazines like Everybody’s Weekly and Outspan Magazine but it wasn't until he moved full time into comic illustration that his legend would eventually begin to be realised.

By 1952, his illustrations were appearing fairly regularly in the Lutterworth publication. The issue for March 1952, contains a superb scraperboard illustration of two otters that make one wish that he had used more of this medium in his work. More atmospheric, and closer in both style and subject matter to his later classic work, are full-page two-tone illustrations that appeared in the Boys Own Paper in August and September of 1952.

As luck would have it the first strip work he did was far less impressive: a short series of single bank advertisements for Gibbs toothpaste but then again we all have mortgages and bills to pay don't we?

Frank's big break as a comic strip artist came when he went to work on Mickey Mouse Weekly, the prestigious photogravure comic published by Odhams. He parted company with Norfolk Studios and went freelance. His main contribution to the comic was Monty Carstairs. Kind of an upper-crust adventurer whose was a curious meld of Lord Peter Whimsy and Paul Temple. An immaculately dressed, cool- headed and debonair individual with bags full of cash. Bellamy’s first work on the strip appeared in the issue dated 25 July 1953.

From this point on Bellamy blossomed as an artist and demand for him grew. Throughout the fifties and well into the sixties he became involved in a selection of comic book creations that included Monty Carstairs, The Swiss Family Robinson, King Arthur and his Knights, Robin Hood and his Merry Men. His eye for detail and perfection was even then something to marvel at. The way that he breathed life and realism into his strips was incredible and an utter joy to read. He managed to capture the mythic spirit of life in the greenwood: glistening leaves, the sunlight falling through the branches and the gnarled boughs of giant oak trees. As with the King Arthur strip, there were battles-a-plenty for action-minded youngsters and the strip possessed the cinematic qualities of movement, depth and excitingly-varied viewpoints.

However, no matter how good his work was it was apparent to anyone with halfpence of common sense that his talent wasn't really meant for any of this and then Marcus Morris came on his radar.

Marcus Morris, the editor of Eagle, offered him the opportunity to work on the comic’s prestigious back page, Bellamy was very keen to start. Initially, he worked on a strip entitled The Happy Warrior which was a story about Winston Churchill.

Bellamy was less than happy himself with this task but, being the true pro that he was still managed to produce some incredible work. The Happy Warrior ended in September 1958, Bellamy had developed his style to such an extent that he had firmly established himself as one of the foremost strip artists in the country.

Bellamy’s next subject for Eagle was another biography, this time, an historical Biblical epic based on the life of David and entitled The Shepherd King. Which he then followed with another back page biography The Travels of Marco Polo, which began in Eagle in April 1959. He never got to complete this series as he was moved onto bigger and better stuff.

Early in 1959, with Dan Dare going into decline, Frank Bellamy was asked to take over the job of illustrating the UK's premier strip. At first, due to his huge regard for its previous writer and artist, Frank Hampson, Bellamy was unsure but was assured that his tenure would only be for one year. He agreed and took over the legend that was and still is Dan Dare.

Dan Dare occupied the first two pages of Eagle and, to help him with the work, he had the assistance of Don Harley and Keith Watson who had both been members of Frank Hampson’s team of Dan Dare artists. Bellamy was very much a lone wolf when it came to his work and the idea of working with a team of artists was anathema to him. To resolve the problem of sharing the two Dan Dare pages, it was arranged that Harley and Watson would work on one page in London while he completed the other page in his studio at home.

Even with all the inherent problems Bellamy manfully continued and managed to give a new credibility and authenticity to the already well-established character.

After his time on Dan Dare was up, Bellamy moved on to what some people think was his greatest achievement Fraser Of Africa.

His his use of colours on this strip was inspired. He managed, by using soft brown tones and sepia, to capture perfectly the African landscape and with his wondrous eye for detail to give depth and life to the African animals that he drew.

The Fraser trilogy was reprinted by Hawk Books Ltd. in 1990 with an extensive appraisal of the artist’s work by one of the present writers. Copies of this large format, card-wrapped volume are still relatively plentiful and can usually be found for around nine pounds or so.

Heros The Spartan followed and Bellamy drew four series of Heros adventures, the last coming to an end in July 1965. Many collectors consider the series to be his finest work and, more than any other of his strips, it is perhaps the one most closely associated with the artist. It is certainly a high-water mark in the history of fantasy adventure strips.

After this, now 1966, Bellamy drew a succession of well-illustrated stories including Rider Haggard’s African romance, King Solomon’s Mines (something he never concluded, Thunderbirds, Doctor Who, and then, in 1971, Bellamy took over the artistic reins of Garth for The Daily Mirror. Perhaps the most famous of his illustrative works and a job which he worked on until his untimely death in 1976.

"Frank Bellamy was a perfectionist who created some of the best colour work ever to appear in British comics. His meticulously-drawn strips were always vibrant and full of life and action. His artwork rarely showed any signs of changes or alterations: he would discard a piece of work and start again rather than resort to process white and paste on patches. His legacy is a wealth of superbly-drawn and painted strips that are amongst the very best of their kind. He would captivate his audience from the moment their eyes encountered the first frame of one of his strips and hold them spellbound until the last panel had been savoured. His work is highly regarded amongst an ever-growing group of enthusiasts both here and abroad."

Amen to that!

Russell Cuts the Corn From The Brewers Whiskers and then wets the babies head with a soggy tea bag

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