If you were a youngster in the UK between 1959-1989 you probably remember the Class Classic Comics line. These were virtual treasure troves purchased for a few pence. War,Sci Fi,Spooky tales,ACG,Marvel and Charlton super heroes could be found in the pages -and there were text stories.
In the 1980s I briefly met Alan,and we exchanged letters but then I lost touch with him but his comics still inspired me!
I set up the first Yahoo Alan Class group and,despite what a few might say,the first Alan Class website. It may have taken years but,eventually,I re-established contact with Alan. And here is the exclusive interview!
TERRY:So,Alan,you are one of the “mystery men” of the British comics scene;even if we know about Class Comics we know next to nothing about Alan Class! The first question has to be:where and when were you born?
ALAN: I was born in Holloway,London. 21st July,1937 –don’t remember much about that I’m afraid!TERRY:I’m assuming that as a child you read comics -can you remember which titles and your favourite strips or stories from them…or are we going a little too far back there?
ALAN:I do remember as a young schoolboy [probably around 9 or 10 years old]rushing out of school on a Wednesday to be one of the first at W.H.Smiths bookstall on Blackfriars Station to get the new issues of CHAMPION and KNOCKOUT –I was also keen on FILM FUN. If you didn’t reach the bookstall quickly enough my titles were sold out,and my journey home a disaster!!!
TERRY:We have a big area of no information here– after you came out of full time education did you go straight into publishing and if so in what capacity?ALAN: Upon leaving school,I entered the profession of ‘Estate Agency’ and became an apprentice with Winkworth & Co. who at that time  had just the one branch in Curzon Street, Mayfair,London.
After about three years in the estate business with a few
West End agencies,I met my future wife,who was the daughter of Alfred Graham,whose publishing and distribution company may ring a bell –“Streamline Publications”. It was after a number of discussions with Mr Graham that I decided to become involved in the book and publishing
TERRY:I recall,vaguely,other Class titles on the old newsagents spin-rack. Is it my imagination or were you publishing non-comic material at one point?ALAN: In the beginning I decided to try and import the actual copies of AMERICAN MOVIE,ROMANCE,DETECTIVE and TEEN magazines. In 1958 [approx.] import restrictions were strictly in place and currency could not be transferred outside England without Government authority. You had to obtain a licence from the Board of Trade,to whom samples had to be submitted for vetting purposes. The licence for the goods would then be granted or refused. If granted it would stipulate the quantity authorised. I then wrote to a number of leading publishing houses in New York,requesting sample copies of the publications that I had in mind,and what I intended to do. Eventually the Board of Trade issued licences to me enabling a number of publications with limited quantities to be imported. However,due to the much higher cover price on the U.S.A. publications,in comparison to what could be obtained in England for the same copy,I found that I could only afford to buy what were called “Remainder Copies”.
These were in fact leftovers from the monthly distribution,or unsolds which were returned back to the publishers for shredding!!! So,this came first,and was how it started.
TERRY:At what point did you decide to get into the comics publishing market and why?
ALAN: Comics had always had a fascination for me,and seemed a logical extension to business. I also hoped that by having my “own” monthly publishing in England,I would not be so reliant on the problems and difficulties involved with importation –i.e. release dates,shipping schedules,title availability,etc..
TERRY:Alan,the next question is regarding all the ACG,Timely,Marvel and even Charlton strips you published in your titles. When I read these as a kid I just loved them -a ghostly tale followed by a war yarn,followed by a super hero strip and so on. The blend was wonderful and introduced me to characters and creators I grew to love long before I even saw the American colour versions. Just how did you get permission to use these strips,especially Marvel -was it a complicated business to get the licence rights? Incidentally,was there ever a time limit put on how long you were permitted to keep reprinting them [strips]?
ALAN: In reply to that question,I will have to respond in a rather long-winded and roundabout way so forgive me
TERRY: No problem –it’s British comic history. Go ahead!
ALAN:When starting out the the cover price for all my comic publications was just 1/- [5p in todays money],for this you purchased a book of 66 pages [numerous stories] plus an eye-catching four colour cover.
However,I was selling to Wholesale Houses who in turn would distribute to the shops in their area who were prepared to take some copies. I therefore had to give normal wholesale terms on the cover price,which meant I only received under 3p per copy.
Out of this I had to pay for the printing,carriage to the wholesale warehouses around the country –packing it to required quantities—and pay for the comic illustrations.
The only way that I could get it to work [and then only just],was by dealing with a Syndicated Features Agency who would sell me the rights for England only,and then probably sell the rights to other publishers for France,Spain,Italy,etc..
In this way I just about made ends meet!! It was this Agency at the end of the 1950s and beginning of the 1960s who offered me the Marvel rights,which was at a time when the Marvel Comics were ‘not’ being exported or printed in England.
Once the decision was taken to export Marvel Comics to England,then of course the rights to publish future issues was terminated,and I do not hold any reprint rights for the future. I got there in the end,Terry,but wanted you to understand the process and how it all transpired.
TERRY:That’s perfectly okay,Alan,how these things worked in the post-war years has always been a bit of a mystery –what surprises me is that you managed to keep going and make some money!
I’ve wondered,Alan,having spoken to the late Denis Gifford a few times,when did you meet him?
ALAN: Though I’ve racked my brain,I really can’t remember my first meeting with Denis. I can only assume that it must have been at a comics convention –possibly 101.
TERRY: Right,for those unaware of this,Comics 101 was the UKs first comics convention back in 1976 and a report featured in Denis’ ALLY SLOPER number 1 [pub. 1976]. In the early 1970s you and Denis jointly [?] published the ALLY SLOPER magazine and I believe the great Frank Bellamy was invited to the launch -did he make it? And,biggest question of all:why did it get cancelled?ALAN:ALLY SLOPER was launched in a blaze of publicity aboard the Steam-ship “Tattershall Castle”,which was berthed on the Thames nearBlackfriars
Bridge. There were badges,T-shirts and other momentoes. The master-of-ceremonies was a lovely man and great British comedian Ted Ray.
Many British illustrators of the time were invited including Frank Hampson and Frank Bellamy. Hampson made it,sadly Bellamy didn’t. On arrival most [not all] the artists were asked to sign-in by drawing their own special character or doodle on a very large hanging sheet of paper. It made a focal point for the occasion,and it is still in my possession.
Though we received plenty of good publicity from our launch,including some highly favourable reviews for ALLY,regrettably we couldn’t get the required support necessary for this new and different publication –it just didn’t sell,and after perservering for nine or ten issues I’m afraid ALLY sloped off into the night taking our losses with him!!
TERRY:I should have asked –how were you involved in the UKs first comic get together,Comics 101?
ALAN:Comics 101 was a grand and memorable event.I attended solely as a member of the public,but was not involved in the organisation or presentation arrangements.
TERRY:At one point there were one -off titles under the Class imprint;were they meant to be one-offs or was it a case of simply reducing the number of titles you published for commercial reasons?
ALAN:One-offs came about as a means of “putting a toe in the water” to see how popular or unpopular another type of comic might be. I was already publishing/distributing six monthly Suspense-Sinister-Mystery comics and I thought that possibly a War-Western-Detective comic might prove equally popular –let me say that none ever did.
We had limited success with a few other titles,and even tried a Romance title for girls and a “JUST DENNIS” comic featuring Dennis The Menace. However,none came close to the original six,and I ended up publishing more titles of Weird and Space.
TERRY: I ought to point out here that Alan is not talking about D.C. Thomson & Sons Dennis who appeared in the BEANO on 17th March,1951,but Hank Ketcham’s DENNIS THE MENACE,published by Standard Comics/Post Hall –as the late Denis Gifford pointed out,there was a weird comic book coincidence here. The U.S. Dennis saw print on the 12th March,1951 –the same day that Thomsons Dennis saw print [confusing,yes,but the BEANO cover date is five days ahead of when it actually appears].
ALAN:One thing that has always annoyed some collectors [especially Americans -yes,you have fans there also!] is that there is no indication of publication date such as “January,1970″,etc..
Was this purely because the comics were seen as disposable entertainment rather than collectibles? Is there a ledger somewhere showing which issue number was published when? [I’ll admit it never bugs me because the Class titles are timeless in a way and I’ll pick one up and think “I got this Summer…” and that’s all I need to know!]
ALAN:I appreciate and understand that having a comic with only a number and no date is a ‘pain in the butt’,but from my point of view there was good reason for this. As already explained I was working on the tiniest of margins.
Every copy was of value to me,and some wholesale houses wanted to ‘shred’ unsold copies. I insisted that all unsold copies were returned back to me complete. I had good reason for this because during the Summer period,May-September,a new market would become available. Beach and coastal resorts were thronged with thousands of holiday-makers with their children,who at certain times had to be kept quiet and happy,and what better way than to read a comic!
So,be it Blackpool,Brighton,Bournemouth to Weston-Super-Mare,orders came in from 10 copies to 100 copies for each “different” issue that we had available. In my view a date meant that it could have been first released months or even over a year before,and could spoil the readers’ enjoyment or even prevent the purchase,even if he or she was keen to read it. With this in mind copies were only numbered.
Looking back it certainly wasn’t the perfect remedy,but at the time it assisted sales and worked. Of course all collectors were easily able to check from the numbers whether the copy was already in their collections. Unfortunately,no ledger or guide exists for dating the copies,but I do have some references in my records which may enable me one day to sit down and clarify dates for many of the issues. TERRY:I can well recall Summer bus trips to Weston-Super-Mare and how I always got one or two Class Comics to read on the bus journey which,in the 1960s/early 1970s took about 40 minutes if you were lucky! The rest of the day was an anti-climax as I wanted to read the comics again! To be honest I couldn’t have cared less if there was a cover date –even today if I find a copy the last thing I think about is publication date. I can see the commercial sense in no cover date now you’ve explained it.
But right up until the early 1980s Class titles were commonly found in newsagents,at bus and railway stations then…they started disappearing. I know collectors wrote to comic magazines explaining how they placed orders at W.H.Smith for issues but were then told no new issues had been delivered. They were later told that deliveries had been delayed and,finally,that the comics would not be appearing.
If I recall rightly,you explained to me back in 1985[?] that you had delivered copies to the W.H.Smith warehouse for distribution and later returned to find them still in the warehouse….I think you said you were later told they’d gone for shredding!! Just what happened with Smiths and their distribution [I know IPC suffered in certain areas due to the same problems]?
ALAN:All comics were being published and released until 1989. At no time was I told or made aware of any wholesale distribution problems. I would also say that every copy printed gave our name and address,and also the printers name and address,and a note to either would have received a speedy response,with an offer of direct subscription,and a check on what was going wrong.
TERRY:At what point did you decide to wind up the business -it must have been a sad day after so many years and you must miss the publishing business –fond memories?
ALAN:After thirty years of non-stop monthly publishing,I made the decision to call it a day,and yes it was sad. It was a life-times work which I had worked and organised more or less on my own,and which I hoped had given some measure of enjoyment and pleasure to a few. The reality was in 1989 costs were escalating,sales were falling –Marvels were on everybodies wish-list,and my comics were at 55p which I didn’t feel could be increased –enough was enough!
Hard work for small reward are the facts,but if you enjoy what you are doing,and it gives you pleasure to do it,then this makes up for a lot and you certainly wouldn’t remain in the business for all those years if it didn’t mean a great deal to you. Yes –it was a very sad moment,but it had been a very exciting period with numerous challenges,many ups and downs,and contact with so many helpful and enthusiastic collectors.TERRY: I know you went into a London Comic store one day to see whether anyone remembered your comics –how did that come about ? I know I used to have an “open house” and artists used to visit or pop in on trips to or through Bristol. There was a lot of rummaging through my comic boxes and there was always a smile when someone found the Class Comics because of fond memories. One artist had a wide smile on his face and held up a copy of Astounding Stories and said:”Oh great:Class Comics –cheap and wonderful!” If someone said something like that about a book I’d done I’d feel satisfied,knowing there were fans and that they had such fond memories. I’m not sure what sort of feed-back you get now that you’ve been ‘re-discovered’[!] but did you have any idea before how many people were Class Comic fans or that these middle aged kids still had very fond memories of them? ALAN:It was 2004,over fifteen years since the termination not only of my comics publishing business but also of my overall interest in the comics market,and during this time I can honestly say that I had never seen or heard any mention of my comic publications –I had just assumed that they were long forgotten,never to be heard of again. It was a Wednesday afternoon and I was off with my wife to see a matinee of the show “Woman In White” at the Palace Theatre,Cambridge Circus. We had some lunch and to then reach the theatre we were walking along
Charing Cross Road. We were passing Paul Henderson’s shop,Comic Showcase,and stopped to look in the window. The vast array of comics and books on show fascinated me,and I stood there thinking back in time. My wife said “Why don’t you go in and see if they’ve ever heard or know anything of your comics?” My first reaction was to say “No way –you must be joking”,but she was insistent and in we went. I went to the central sales point,and with tongue-in-cheek,inquired if by any chance they had ever heard of the Alan Class Series of comic books. The response staggered me –yes they did know the series;they didn’t have any in stock,but yes there was a demand for them from old and new collectors,and they could be referred to as Classic comic issues which were quite sought after.
You could have knocked me down with a feather,and my wife said that I went pale and quiet. After chatting with the sales person for a few minutes,he asked if I had any connection with the series,and when I said that I was actually Alan Class,it was his turn to be astounded! He said that he often received inquiries from comic writers and magazines about the comics and the publisher Alan Class [who I think most people thought had long passed on!],and would I leave my telephone number for contact? This I did,and it wasn’t long before the phone was ringing with interview requests and queries. It goes without saying that initially to be “re-discovered” was a real shock to the system,I couldn’t believe after all these years that collectors not only remembered them,but looked on them in such a loving light.The greatest benefit for me is to realise now just how much pleasure and enjoyment all those comic fans were getting from my books way back in the early 1960s. I wish I would have known then what I know now,as it would have helped immeasurably when the chips were down and the going very tough. TERRY:I think that,in the UK,fans were never brave enough to write to publishers or creators in the past. I know at Comics 101 Denis [Gifford] said that Steve Dowling,the creator of GARTH ,was almost in tears at the fan response to him –he had no idea for years that people admired his work!
But,Alan,for all the middle-aged kids out there or the people re-discovering your books now -any final words?
ALAN: I would like to say to the older folks out there,who in the 1960s bought these books for 5p,right up to today’s fans who are still buying them at current prices –I never anticipated in my wildest dreams the support and goodwill that has come my way.
Thank you so much,you have made an old boy very happy. I even have a website and if you have a spare moment it can be reached on www.alanclass.co.uk
Finally,Terry,my sincere thanks to you for your interest,patience and excellent questions which have enabled me to resurrect memories which had long been forgotten!
TERRY:And,Alan,thanks from myself and fans who grew up enjoying the Class Series of Comics!