Saturday 23 September 2023

The origins of Thunderbirds by Frank Bellamy

TV21 #54 page 12 Original art
The image from "Thunderbirds" above was posted recently on Facebook by my friend Jeff Haythorpe and this sparked a few discussions about how Bellamy managed a double-page spread plus a black and white page each week, which I'm picking up here. Before i start all the heavy detail, I want to repeat this is not a published black and white page from colour, it is in fact a black and white ink wash as Bellamy originally drew it.

We need to go a bit backwards in time. Frank Bellamy drew the last "Heros the Spartan" story for Eagle which when published ended in Volume 16 No. 30 (24 July 1965). After this he drew two covers for the comic "Arms Through the Ages:The crossbow" (Vol 16:35 - 28 August 1965) and "Arms Through the Ages:The floating mine" (Volume 16: 36) published 4 September 1965 - both can be seen here. We know that the lead time (from submitting artwork to its publication) was usually 6 weeks, so Bellamy looks to have finished with Eagle circa last week of August 1965. 

"Heros The Spartan" in Eagle Annual 1966, p.89
He received a cheque from Eagle paid in on 28 June 1965 and labelled "Heros #20" for £88/0/0d. So a double spread paid £88 (no shillings and no pence - pre-decimal money). Interestingly that last story has 22 episodes but I can't see these payments. He then received the same for the two "Arms through the Ages" covers (£88) paid in on 4 August 1965. I can't find any obvious record of the "Heros" story which appeared in the Eagle Annual 1966 (and would have most likely been completed before March 1965 - and gives me an excuse to show you the first page of that story!). So we can say the last cheque from Eagle was paid in on 4 August 1965.

So the big question is what did he do then? After such a long run with Hulton - and the new comics group under the title Odhams / Longacre Press / Fleetway where did he go?

We know that Bellamy submitted a letter of application to the Royal Society of Arts in March 1965 - perhaps thinking about the ending of a comic era, he wanted to look in other directions. The letter went before the committee on May 10th and following this he not only became a member but gained the post-nominals Fellow of the RSA such was his artwork held in high esteem by his peers - most likely his non-comic work which he had been exhibiting around various places in the preceding few years. 

On the 12 July 1965 he received a response to his resignation letter. It arrived on Odhams letter headed paper from Alfred F. Wallace (Managing Editor, Juvenile Publications), confirming Bellamy was free of any commitments, and wishing him all the best for the future.

TV21 #54 pages 10-11 - the third "Thunderbirds" issue

Looking at when the first "Thunderbirds" was published (TV21 #52 dated 15 January 2066 - actually 1966 as the clever device was it was a newspaper from 100 years in the future!), we see he drew both a colour centrespread plus a black and white page - so three pages a week. This lasted from #52 to #65 (15 January 1966 - 16 April 1966) covering two stories - "Forest Inferno" and "White Rhino Rescue" - 14 weeks. 

In their interview with Bellamy, Dez Skinn and Dave Gibbons asked about how he came to be involved:

Alan Fennell, the writer of the TV "Stingray", "Thunderbirds" and so on, was the first editor of TV21. He approached me saying he was wanting to start a comic of the same quality as Eagle, but with the Century 21 look about it, more S-F orientated. Alan wanted me to draw "Stingray", the lead strip in TV Century 21, number 1. But, because I was working for Eagle at that time I wouldn't leave to draw "Stingray". I felt I had to fulfil my commitments with Eagle, which I did, and then after explaining to the Eagle editor, Alf Wallace, we parted as best of friends and I started work for TV Century 21. It was clear, at this stage, that it would be a wise move to change anyway, because in 1966 Eagle was tailing off a bit, whereas TV Century 21 was a new magazine. [It actually ended with Volume 20:17 - 26 April 1969 ~Norman]

Asked if it was hard drawing puppets in an action setting, he replied

Yes, it was a problem. Everybody had seen them on the television, and so they would think of the characters as l8"-high puppets, which they were. So I had to decide whether to make them look like the puppets they were, or the people they were supposed to be. I went for forgetting they were puppets, other than simplifying the heads, which had to be recognisable from the established versions on the television.

Also Nancy told her version - expanding a bit - to Alan Woollcombe:

Gerry Anderson wanted Frank to illustrate ‘Thunderbirds’ so Alan Fennell (editor of TV Century 21) took us over to meet Gerry and Sylvia. He showed us all round the studios, showed us how they made the scenes and the puppets work so Frank agreed to illustrate ‘Thunderbirds’. Eagle was going down the drain anyway. The only thing was, be hated drawing puppets, so he made all the puppets look more human.

Asked if Frank had models to work from, Nancy replied:

Just the heads, white heads. The funny thing was, they were ever such ghastly things, and I was always playing jokes on my son David. One night he came in really late so I had got all these heads and arranged them along the pillow on his bed, and then covered them up with the sheet. When he came in, there were all these ghostly heads grinning at him, dead white... oh, I heard him scream!

In 1992 Nancy was interviewed on local radio and this is how she related the same story:

Gerry Anderson was deciding to bring out a comic on Thunderbirds and Alan Fennell, he was the Editor, got in touch with Frank and they had a meeting with Gerry Anderson at Slough.  So I went along as well and Gerry Anderson was very kind and he showed us all around.. well, it was a sort of factory where they made the Thunderbird films and he showed how the puppets worked, how the special effects were done, and it was a very interesting day.  Also, I was very thrilled when Sylvia Anderson drove up in a beautiful shocking pink sports car because it reminded me of Lady Penelope.

Getting back to the first "Thunderbirds" strips, in the records shared with us by Nancy Bellamy, we have not only the above payment data but a very interesting payment listed on 29 July 1965 for "TV21 1" which paid £126.  When he was paid for 'series three' which went down to just a colour double-page spread, he was paid £94/10/0d - so £94.50 in modern parlance. When it changed to 2 separate pages he was paid less - £80 - which I find strange!

Later in the interview he was asked about why Thunderbirds changed from a centrespread to two separate colour pages

The reason they split the spread with a gutter was purely that they could sell two separate pages to the continental market, for reprinting, better than an awkwardly—shaped centrespread.

But did you notice that he was PAID in July 1965 for "Thunderbirds"?

So between his last "Heros" and the two 'stray' covers he was already working on "Thunderbirds". We know he kept up the double-page spreads and later the two separate colour pages so I wonder how far ahead of himself he got? Also it must be said, Ron Embleton, Mike Noble and Don Harley were able to create 2 B&W pages plus one and half colour pages around TV21 #150 onwards so what looks like a tremendous output was similarly done by others too.  So Frank Bellamy had a long lead time to get his photo reference and puppet reference before commencing on, what I consider his most read comic strip.

During the discussion of the TV21 #54 image at the top of this article, Graham Bleathman kindly shared his TV21 #52 black and white page, so let's end this here - I've added the published double-page spread of the very first "Thunderbirds" comic strip written by Alan Fennell and drawn in inks by Frank Bellamy, for your enjoyment

TV21 #52 pages 10-11 

TV21 #52 page 12 Original art  

See additional thoughts in the comments below


Anonymous said...

Fantastic reading, Norman, thank you so much for putting this all together.

Norman Boyd said...

Thank YOU Anonymous for taking the time to thank me. I understand how logging a comment is hard work, so I appreciate it

Anonymous said...

This is really interesting Norman, and love the story of how he didn't like drawing puppets.
Paul M

Tony Smith said...

How do you know all this stuff, Norman? Much respect for the research!

Kid said...

I second anon's comment, NB. I found your article absolutely fascinating. When I had a comics career, the lead-in time to a strip was usually around 8 weeks, not 6, though it was probably both at times, depending on whether the artist got delayed.

Norman Boyd said...

Thanks Paul M

Norman Boyd said...

@Tony Smith. Many many years of research and collection. That's a top compliment from a reporter who worked as an investigative reporter back in the day when papers had reporters!

Norman Boyd said...

Hi again Kid, Yes lead times did vary so thanks for your input. I'm using various calculations for other published work PLUS what Mike Noble and David Slinn told me as they worked in comics too. Then there are the stories of weekend jobs - script handed over on Friday, job done by Monday!

Bill Storie said...

Hey Norman, it's Bill Storie (system still wants to log me as anon for some reason) - fascinating article as always old pal and LUVVLY original art scans for which many thanks to all involved. Re the TV21 production lead times we don't (as far as I know) have any information about how long Frank and Ron took to illustrate a 2 page spread although the latter was very fast and he did use an assistant at times to block on colours I believe. Mike Noble was, by his own admission never the fastest of artists and he took 2 days to pencil, 2 to ink and 2 to colour, resting on the seventh day. These were full days btw - no room for additional one-off's and commercial work as Frank and Ron seemed to manage. When Noble and Embleton were drawing Captain Scarlet I'm told the original plan was to have all 4 pages in colour but Mike argued the impossibility of such a schedule so they compromised on 2 colour and 2 b/w pages per issue but also, if you check the issues of TV21 at that time no artist on Scarlet did more than 2 consecutive stories before another artist took over so each artist was doing 8 pages (4 colour, 4 b/w) in a block and then given a wee rest before starting on the next batch of 8. In other words, not a weekly page rate as such, more a block of time allocated to each artist to have 8 pages done. Given the complexity of the TBirds ships and detailed nature of the strip I think it's reasonable to assume Frank would therefore have done 2 colour pages per week with the b/w art taking 3 - 4 days on top of that (pretty sure Frank was doing full pencil art at this stage) which is why he seemed to drop out of sight for a while - i.e. he was getting the first 2 stories completed to give TV21 plenty of lead time before returning to a regular 2 pages per week slot. Hope that makes some sort of sense. Cheers!!

Norman Boyd said...

Hi Bill, Always good to hear from you
Those are really valuable thoughts for which I'm grateful. The 'time block' concept is interesting. Embleton drew the four pages in TV21 #157 and then Noble drew 4 each week until #166 (and that includes some extra B&W illos for text stories in those issues!). So that's an extremely long run of 4 pages each week - even allowing a 'block of time'.
Interesting stuff Bill, thanks

Norman Boyd said...

Hi Bill again!
Sorry I meant to say something about your comment on FB's "doing full pencil art at this stage"

On p.26 of David bellamy's "Timeview" book, he states:
My father's method of tackling his work was in many ways quite bizarre. Starting with a piece of clean white CS10 line board he would sketch away very loosely in a soft pencil and in his own mind he must have been visualising the image, for there was nothing really worked out beforehand, nor any tracings that I recall. When he had this rough, soft image on the board, he would start inking in areas with a dip pen which he found very handy to use because he liked the flexibility of the nib. In this way he would build up the picture and at a particular stage it would suddenly become a wonderful piece of black and white illustration. When every single aspect of it was, in his eyes, technically finished and did not require any blurring of highlight areas, he would then apply the rotring coloured inks.
The only evidence I have is this, so as I love repeating, "I may be arguing from silence" - in other cases
Best wishes

David Jackson said...

Hi Norman,

On the origins of THUNDERBIRDS by Frank Bellamy.

In further clarification, although the FB blog page image is original artwork image for TV21, not a published black and white page from colour - and is a black and white ink wash page as Bellamy originally drew it - this is to say a black and white page created in black ink, black ink line and black ink wash - no ‘white ink’ or ‘white‘; of any sort involved: the white is the white of the CS10 board only. As likewise with his colour strips pages - all in transparent waterproof inks with no opaque or process white used.

And even this fact could be the subject of some confusion for those who have been paying close attention at the back there…

As in the FA 50 interview Frank Bellamy says himself that ‘a printer cannot water his inks’. Which is in relation to newspaper letterpress optical representation of gray tones in which each micro-millimetre of newsprint is either black ink or white newspaper.

TV21 b/w pages used fine halftone to print the monochrome washes of the third page.

A further complication should be noted in this regard from some clippings of EAGLE and SWIFT published frames rescued by Alan Davis from Frank’s studio. The SWIFT frames had been reproduced in half-tone greys (presumably without infra-red) and FB had noted re black ink washes: THIS GREY TECHNIQUE CANNOT BE USED WITH INFRA RED REPRO.

Until being raised as a question, I can’t think that to depict the Gerry Anderson puppets in comic strips exactly as they looked on TV - ie photographically, as puppets, exactly as they appeared on screen - would ever have occurred to anybody. Nor expected editorial complaints to have arisen from the fact that they weren't drawn as puppets. The ‘translation’ into comic book style linework was an interpretation, as with the human stars of live-action TV tie-ins comic strip figures, and literally taken as read.

In the same way as looking at the printed words of novels ’translate’ in readers’ minds into ‘seeing’ not the text as such but the unfolding events of the story.

The schematic linear conventions arising from the key line process in printing do not impose themselves on the storyline but are accepted by readers as the natural ‘language’ of the picture-strip format.

Speaking of language, surely there were enough English-speaking readers in all the various territories around the world that TV21 and could have been shipped direct to. If they were. That the TV programmes themselves were marketed principally with the USA particularly in mind goes without repeating.





Norman Boyd said...

Thanks for these further elucidations David.
I can say something about the last point as I lived in Malta in 1965-1968 - yes, the main period of TV21. I never found any copies on sale at newsagents but had my brother who came from the UK once a year to bring them over with him. The Beano, Bunty, Princess Tina among others were on sale and usually had a penny added to the printed price (so Beano was 4d to me not 3d as stated at that point. DC Comics were available in some places and Marvel in only a few places (unlike at home near Cambridge!). It would be brilliant to know why TV21 never made it over there!
Thanks again