Monday 19 April 2010

Frank Bellamy's Complete Swift Stories

Book Palace Books although a recent arrival in the field of publishing devoted to the revival of erstwhile long lost comic art, have over the last few years carved themselves out an enviable reputation as being the leading U.K. publisher in terms of high end production values and ensuring that the beauty of the pages they are re-presenting are not lost as a result of slipshod scanning, printing and formatting. A lot of love and care goes into the books they produce and nowhere is this more apparent than in the recently published "Frank Bellamy's Complete Swift Stories".

This book whilst not a casual purchase by any means, as it clocks in at £125.00, is a real labour of love and is the culmination of a lengthy project by publisher Geoff West and editor Steve Holland to ferret out all of Frank Bellamy's earliest comic strip work that appeared in the Swift Comic from 1954 onwards. Bellamy's adaptations of "Robin Hood" and "King Arthur and his Knights" have already seen print in two earlier Book Palace collections (which also include "Swift Family Robinson" which appears as a filler at the end of the King Arthur Book).

The Complete Swift edition takes all of these stories and adds in Bellamy's first Swift strip "The Fleet Family in Island of Secrets" and the crucial "Paul English", (in terms of the development of Bellamy's style from the relative pedestrianism of "Swiss Family Robinson" to the dynamics and flair of "King Arthur") as well as stories for annuals; there's a text based tale and a two page comic strip by Samaritans founder Chad Varah.

All the strips contained appear as they were originally intended in black and white with deftly applied washes of tone for added atmosphere, particularly effective in Bellamy's handling of the sun dappled gloom of Sherwood Forest in his Robin Hood strips.

Text and commentary are provided by editor Steve Holland who is a comics historian totally devoted to his subject and his knowledge of what lesser mortals might merely regard as disposable ephemera is second to none. Holland is therefore able to contextualise all the work that appears in this 300 page plus bumper tome, providing an insight into the provenance and origins of the work that Bellamy was illustrating. In addition there are biographies of Bellamy and a look at the subsequent reprints of his Robin Hood stories and how they were "toned" down content wise for a younger audience. The collection includes by way of an introduction a foreword by Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, who helps set the tone for the experience the reader is about to embark upon.

The overall effect of pouring over the contents of this collection is witnessing the development of Bellamy from a very good illustrator who had recently embarked on comic strips (at the age of 37 he wasn't a young prodigy like the Embleton brothers) to a real super star of comic art, similar to seeing Sterankos' work on Nick Fury flower and develop or the young Barry Smith's run on Conan.

The book itself is a real work of art both in terms of it's design which neatly compliments the dynamics of Bellamy's artistry as well as in it's production providing the bibliophile with an experience second to none in terms of tactile and aesthetic satisfaction. Bound in ruby red leather and housed in a sturdy slipcase the book is a delight to hold and peruse, all of the 200 copies come with a limited edition signed print which is shot from an original page of Robin Hood artwork which when compared to the scanned and cleaned up page sourced from The Swift shows what a good job Steve Holland did with the scanning and restoration of these pages.

There's no doubt at all that with this production Book Palace Books have raised the bar on representing some of the most exciting strips ever to appear in the U.K. to a new level in terms of aesthetics and craftsmanship. It will be interesting to see what they do next.

You can buy Frank Bellamy's Complete Swift Stories from Amazon Books or direct from the publisher Book Palace Books who also stock a lot of other books and comics by Bellamy.


  1. Siiiigggghhhh...!!!!

    That's one book I'd dearly love to own. Unfortunately my flexible friend took one look at the hefty price tag and shriveled into a smoldering ball of molten plastic (meanwhile I've a horrible suspicion that David O's growing bibliomania has prompted the bailiffs to repossess his computer! ). I hope you realize the appalling cost in human suffering that posts like this have the power to cause Peter! ;-)

    ...Seriously though I'm enormously grateful to have been afforded these glimpses of what appears to be an outstanding publication: clearly Steve, Geoff and Book Palace Books are to be congratulated on turning such a dream project into reality. While I wasn't old enough to read these stories when they originally appeared in Swift I *was* fortunate enough to have a big brother who not only followed them at the time but had the foresight to cut out and save several pages of 'King Arthur and His Knights' - allowing me to use them as an early reading primer instead of the stultifyingly boring adventures of Janet and John.

    Frank Bellamy really was unique in being able to combine a meticulous attention to detail with an electrifying dynamism that almost made his characters appear to leap off the page (nobody could do pointy hands quite like Frank!). Hardly surprising that the American EC veteran Al Williamson once had the original artwork for one of his most celebrated 'Heros the Spartan' strips framed on his wall.

    It's particularly interesting that this item follows directly on from yesterday's blog entry about Pat Nicolle - another artist noted for his ability to portray ancient warfare in comic strip form. But while they are both justly remembered as masters of their craft, comparing a Nicolle page with one by Bellamy is almost like looking directly from 'The Battle of San Romano' to Michelangelo's Last Judgement. Amongst comic artists Frank Bellamy wasn't just a Renaissance Man - he WAS the Renaissance!!!

  2. ...Apologies to David O. btw - it's clearly the state of Dave M's credit card that's been worrying me so much! (incidentally Dave, have you thought about installing a HAL 9000 onto your hard-drive so that whenever you try to purchase something from Amazon it simply says "I'm sorry Dave, I'm afraid I can't do that!")

  3. Brilliant Phil - I can hear Hal now as I type!

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  5. Another lovely review Peter.

    I am always amazed at how Bellamy progressed - remember he was self-taught, and as far as I can tell, had no members of the family who were artists.

    Your comment re Barry Smith and Steranko set me thinking. When Smith started in comics his work was of a crude nature but, as you say, reached incredible heights that put him in the pantheon of great 20th Century comic artists.

    Despite Bellamy having to conform to the standard 6-9 panels per page, his first outing in a regular comic assignment (remember NOT his his first comic strip - that was the advert Commando Gibbs) was very robust and not at all crude - perhaps it was slightly naive, but still was up there with the rest of the Swift comic contents.

    Great to see interest in one of Britain's greatest comic artist - and thanks again for the wonderful review

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