Great British Comic Artists No. 5
Frank Bellamy
by
Norman Wright & David Ashford


Reprinted from Book & Magazine Collector  no. 222 by permission of the publisher and authors. Back issues of Book and Magazine Collector can be obtained from: Book & Magazine Collector, 45 St. Mary’s Rd, Ealing, London W5 5RQ. Issues cost : UK: £3.50, Europe £3.95. Special offer on back issues to USA, Canada and Australia: 3 issues by surface mail for £11.00. By Airmail: USA/Canada: 3 issues for £13.50, Australia: 3 issues for £13.90. Payment in Sterling payable to Diamond Publishing Group Ltd.

Frank Bellamy was certainly amongst the most influential adventure strip artists of the last fifty years. His best work has a dynamic vitality and aggressive sense of movement that has rarely been equalled and never surpassed. More than any other artist he brought a new sense of excitement to the adventure strip of the 1950s and ‘60s and dominated the field with series after series of masterly drawn strips. Many tried unsuccessfully to emulate his style and his influence in the art of the adventure strip has been immeasurable.

Frank Bellamy was born in Kettering in 1917. His early artistic influences were the juvenile comics of his childhood, Rainbow and Chips, but it was not until he came across some old American Sunday comic sections that he really began to take an interest in adventure strips. He found the Tarzan strips of Hal Foster and Burne Hogarth much more to his taste than the rather static picture stories that mainly featured in British comics of the 1920s and ‘30s. An added bonus of the American ‘jungle strips’ was the depiction of the African fauna for the young Bellamy had long been fascinated by big cats and other creatures of the African plains. One frequently-told story of Frank Bellamy’s boyhood concerns a travelling circus that visited his home town sometime during the mid 1920s. After school hours Frank enjoyed wandering around the circus camp gazing at the caged jungle cats and, on this particular occasion, approached close enough to pluck a few hairs from a lion’s tail. He kept his prize for years afterwards safely stored in a bottle! Such an act may now be deemed foolhardy – for even a well-fed, caged lion is a daunting target. But it does serve to show the sheer determination that Bellamy possessed, a quality that was, in adult life, to take him to the very pinnacle of his chosen profession.

After leaving school Frank worked in a local art studio but it was not long before his call up papers arrived and the army put his artistic talents to good use, drawing detailed diagrams of machine gun mechanisms and aircraft recognition charts. He volunteered for service in Africa but was turned down on the grounds that he was of far more use churning out charts than he would be fighting Rommel! When he was demobbed he moved to London, determined to work his way round every studio until he found himself employment. His portfolio came to rest first at the Norfolk Studios and he was offered a job on the spot.

His early work consisted mainly of spot illustrations for such magazines as Everybody’s Weekly and Outspan Magazine. His interest in ‘The Dark Continent’ was to the fore in both of these publications with an illustration to King Solomon’s Mines in the former and a number of African-related illustrations in the latter. Another magazine that made use of his talents early on in his career was the Boys' Own Paper. Research still needs to be done to ascertain exactly when he first worked for this long-running boys’ paper, but certainly 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 it turned out, Frank Bellamy’s first strip work was far less impressive: a short series of single bank advertisements for Gibbs toothpaste, featuring a superhero-type named Commando Gibbs in his battles against “Dragon Decay”. These also appeared during 1952 and were published in Hulton’s Eagle. They were inauspicious affairs that gave little indication of the superlative work that Bellamy would eventually produce for this comic.

One of the delights of collecting the work of Frank Bellamy is that for the period 1950 to about 1956 there is still much to be discovered and the diligent researcher never knows when he is going to come across a previously ‘unknown’ magazine illustration by the artist. Bellamy painted a number of dustwrapper designs, including The Bank House Twins, a juvenile novel by Kathleen Fiddler, published by Lutterworth Press in 1955. How many other wrappers he painted in the early ‘50s is an area still to be fully researched.

Bellamy’s big break as a strip artist came when he was offered the opportunity to work on Mickey Mouse Weekly, the prestigious photogravure comic published by Odhams. He left Norfolk Studios and went freelance. His main contribution to the comic was Monty Carstairs, an upper-crust adventurer whose exploits had been appearing in the comic since February, 1951. Carstairs was something of a cross between Lord Peter Whimsy and Paul Temple - always immaculately dressed, invariably cool- headed and with plenty of money for fast cars and the other accoutrements that were the lot of the well-heeled investigator. Bellamy’s first work on the strip appeared in the issue dated 25 July, 1953, when Monty was engaged in an adventure entitled The Secret of the Sands. This was followed by three further Bellamy-drawn Carstairs serial adventures: The Mystery of the Musical Box, The Mystery of the Black Pearls and The Men From the East.

“Monty Carstairs” was a fairly action-packed strip and, from the moment he took it over, Bellamy began to show his great propensity for depicting movement. During his one year tenure on the strip he started to develop the techniques that later became hallmarks of his work and it is obvious to all that his “Carstairs” strips are a world away in quality from the mediocre “Commander Gibbs” efforts in Eagle, although there is some way to go before the Bellamy style becomes immediately recognizable. While working on Mickey Mouse Weekly he drew his first colour strips: segments of the Walt Disney’s Living Desert feature. Although he was allowed to sign his “Monty Carstairs” strips with his own name, all of the comic’s Disney-related strips had to be signed ‘Walt Disney’.

1954 was a landmark year for the young artist, marking the beginning of his long association with Hulton Press. His first work for the publisher was a picture story adaptation of The Swiss Family Robinson for Swift, a stable-mate of Eagle aimed at a slightly younger age group. While competently drawn, “The Swiss Family Robinson” showed little sign of the great things that Bellamy was to achieve with some of his later work for the publisher. “The Swiss Family Robinson” was followed by King Arthur and His Knights. The very first episode of this strip displayed a confidence that boded well for its success and, within weeks, it had blossomed into something quite outstanding. Bellamy relished his subject; at last he had been given the opportunity to show off his expertise as an action artist. Week after week he brought the strip to life with a succession of powerful images that must have thrilled and delighted readers. Despite the restraints imposed upon the artist by Swift‘s rather old-fashioned and formal layout, echoing back to the pre-war comics with their regular-sized frames and text blocks under each panel, he managed to capture to perfection all of the splendour and pageantry of the Arthurian legend.

As the strip progressed, he used more and more double-sized frames, running the full width of the page, to give greater impact to the battle scenes that are an integral part of the Arthurian legend. Throughout the series, he imbued the strip with the brooding fatalism prevalent in Mallory’s epic tale. The scenes of the final confrontation between the forces of Arthur and Mordred teem with armour-clad warriors engaged in violent, pitched battles while the scenes of Arthur’s death and the return of Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake are delicately and movingly handled. The final instalment gave the story an upbeat ending with Sir Lancelot and the rest of the Knights of the Round Table swearing a solemn oath to keep peace in the land. The whole serial is a triumphant blend of movement and adventure and the story of King Arthur and his Knights has never been better told in picture strip form.

The very next week after the conclusion of “King Arthur and His Knights”, Swift presented its readers with the first episode of Robin Hood and His Merry Men, a strip based on the traditional story of the famous Sherwood outlaw. Once again Bellamy produced some impeccable artwork with plenty of excitement as well as a good helping of humour. 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.

Even at this stage in his career, Bellamy was very much the perfectionist and those who have had the good fortune to view the existing original artwork from the Robin Hood strip have been amazed at how little correction or alteration is visible on the inked page. Often original pages of strip artwork are covered in ‘process white’, where the artist has corrected a mistake or changed his mind on a matter of detail, but there is scarcely a sign of such correction on Bellamy’s finished work. This striving for perfection and the discarding of anything that did not meet his own, very stringent, standards was to be a hallmark of Bellamy’s work for the rest of his life. Such a policy was wonderful for editors and readers alike, but put an almost intolerable burden on the artist.

The King Arthur and Robin Hood strips were wonderful pieces of work but it must have been apparent to the editorial staff at Hulton Press that Bellamy’s work was out of place in Swift. The comic had been designed as a younger sibling to Eagle and Girl and the subtlety and depth of Bellamy’s work must have been lost on a vast majority of Swift’s young readers. But the powers that be were becoming fully aware of Bellamy’s skill and ability and he was soon to be given the chance to work on a strip that would use his talents to the full.

When Marcus Morris, editor of Eagle, offered him the opportunity to work on the comic’s prestigious back page, Bellamy was eager to begin. His enthusiasm was, however, tempered a little when he learnt that the work was to be a biographical strip of Sir Winston Churchill. Up to that time the back page ‘historical biography’ had always concentrated on historical figures; to work on the biographical strip of, not only a living person but a great national hero as well, was a rather intimidating task and one that called for a great deal of careful research - as well as tact. Ever a perfectionist Bellamy spent many hours studying a large number of photographic references and making numerous visits to the Imperial War Museum in London. The Happy Warrior, as the strip was titled, proved to be a great success not only with Eagle readers but also with its subject!

Early episodes of “The Happy Warrior” have a rather formal layout but, as the strip progressed, Bellamy began to experiment with his layouts. He varied the size of frames and made use of large ‘splash’ panels to depict important scenes and to give the work more impact. By the time the story reached World War Two, Bellamy had transformed the layout from a rather formal strip to a narrative in words and pictures that flowed seamlessly. His restrained use of subdued shades of colour fitted the storyline perfectly and added an extra dimension to the work and, by the time “The Happy Warrior” came to its conclusion 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.

The impact of the strip can be assessed by the fact that Hulton Press reprinted it in book form almost immediately after its serialisation in Eagle had ended, an honour that was enjoyed by only one other ‘back page biography’. Three leather bound copies of the book were produced, printed on high quality paper. One of which was presented to Churchill, one to Clifford Makins, who had scripted the strip, and the third copy was given to Frank Bellamy himself. Copies of the Hulton hardback of “The Happy Warrior”, published in 1958, are becoming increasingly difficult to find in very good condition. The rather fragile nature of the binding has resulted in many copies losing their spines in the intervening forty four years and the collector searching for a VG copy with spine intact will have to pay around thirty to forty pounds.

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”. The work gave Frank Bellamy an opportunity to consolidate the style he had been developing with “The Happy Warrior”. It was literate, visually exciting and rich in colour. For his ‘hat trick’ of back page biographies Bellamy started work on “The Travels of Marco Polo”, which began in Eagle in April, 1959. Changes, however, were afoot and he was not to be given the chance to finish the serial.

Early in 1959, Hulton Press had been taken over by Odhams and the new owners wanted to see some changes. They decided that Dan Dare, the famous cover character of Eagle, looked too dated and needed a face lift. They wanted someone who would inject a new vitality into the character and asked Frank Bellamy if he would take on the job. Bellamy was uneasy about taking over a character who had been created and nurtured by another artist but was eventually persuaded on the understanding that his commitment to the strip would be only for one year.

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.

Despite the difficulties encountered with such an arrangement (and the obvious discrepancy between the dynamic new-style Bellamy page and the more traditional pages by the other artists), during his year on the Dan Dare strip, Bellamy created some stunning pages of artwork that glow vividly with life. Dan Dare purists may decry the removal of Frank Hampson from the strip - and there is no doubt that the spaceman’s creator endowed his galactic hero with great credibility and authenticity – but, given that the new proprietors of Eagle were determined to change the artist, there could have been no better choice for the job than Frank Bellamy.

When his time on Dan Dare was up Bellamy had the chance to work on a new African adventure strip featuring the adventures of Martin Fraser, an African White Hunter, to be entitled Fraser Of Africa. Not only was this something new and exciting for Eagle but it was also a subject that appealed to him greatly. Better still, it was a totally new venture and Bellamy was able to create every facet of it himself and he set about it with unbounded enthusiasm. He was anxious to experiment with this strip by limiting his palette to brown, yellow and orange to give the work a hot, sun-scorched look. At first the printers, Bemrose, were sceptical, fearing there was little chance of his idea working but, after initial tests were successful, Bellamy began work on The Lost Safari, the first of what would eventually prove to be a trilogy of adventures. The result was something entirely new in comics: a strip that not only vividly depicted life on the African plains, but also used colour in an unusually subtle manner.

“Fraser of Africa” was one of Frank Bellamy’s greatest successes and it remained one of the artist’s own particular favourites. One feature of the strip that has contributed to its continual appeal is its philosophy of conservation. It was years ahead of its time in its attitude towards the wild life of the African continent. While characters in other jungle strips went around decimating the stocks of ‘big game’, Martin Fraser continually side-stepped, allowing the creatures to flourish. When a rhino was in the way of the Land-Rover in which he and his party were travelling, rather than resort to fire-arms, Fraser gets his companions to jump about and frighten the rhino away. When guns were used it was always made clear that it was a last resort. Such was the power of Frank Bellamy’s visuals that the reader could feel an intimacy with the African surroundings as he travelled across the landscape. The character of Fraser was realistic and believable and, though he invariably achieved his aims, it was always through his skill, foresight and knowledge rather than by any great super-human strength.

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.

Frank Bellamy’s first full-colour centre-spread for Eagle was Montgomery of Alamein, an eighteen episode biography which began in March, 1962. As with “The Happy Warrior”, it required a great deal of research and a degree of co-operation from Montgomery himself. Unlike the Churchill strip, Frank began it with confidence and a determination to make it something outstanding. Once again he experimented with colour, conveying the feel of individual frames with carefully-chosen tints and tones. He became even bolder in the way he broke up his pages, using shaped panels to depict movement, wide panoramic frames to portray battles and jagged-edged illustrations to draw reader’s attention to important events. If anything the work was an even greater success than “The Happy Warrior” and ranks as one of the best strip biographies of all time.

“The Happy Warrior” and “Montgomery of Alamein” were both reprinted by Dragons Dream in 1981 under the title High Command. The book was published in both hardback and paperback format and both are equally difficult to find. The hardback will cost the collector around thirty five pounds, while the softback version sells for slightly less at about twenty five pounds.

Bellamy’s next serial for Eagle was Heros The Spartan, a fantasy adventure, worlds away from the gunfire of World War II. Heros was a swashbuckling hero of the ancient world who encountered danger and fantastic adventures in a ‘sword and sorcery’ world. The artist relished his work on the strip and, although it did not require the research needed for the Churchill and Montgomery serials, it often took the artist an entire week to create some of the detail-filled colour double pages. It was a project on which his imagination could be given full rein and for which he created giant warrior tribes, sea monsters and other weird and wonderful creatures. The pages throbbed with warlike warriors battling their way through a harsh, grim, gritty, blood-soaked world set in and beyond the Roman Empire.

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.

During one of his breaks from Heros, Bellamy produced a colour strip for Boys World, another Odhams-owned comic. It was a science fiction adventure entitled The Ghost World, featuring a hero named Brett Million. Million was not Bellamy’s creation, an earlier adventure of the tough spaceman, drawn by Eidlestein, had previously filled the comic’s colour centre spread. The Bellamy-drawn strip featured Million on the planet Eisen, a world where the inhabitants could move at an incredible speed. It began in the comic early in December, 1963, and ran until the end of April, 1964. It was well drawn but lacked the special magic that Bellamy had woven into his work for Eagle.

Bellamy’s last project for Eagle was a proposed full colour strip version of Rider Haggard’s African romance, King Solomon’s Mines. Alas, the strip was never finished and the few pages that were completed offer a tantalising taster of what may well have been another masterpiece.

In January, 1966, Frank Bellamy began work on a strip version of Thunderbirds, the Gerry Anderson T.V. puppet series that has recently enjoyed yet another successful revival on BBC TV. Anderson’s futuristic puppets were incredibly popular in the late 1960s and their exploits were avidly followed by fans in TV Century 21, a comic that devoted a large proportion of its pages to the characters. “Thunderbirds” was given pride of place across the comic’s full-colour centre pages. At first the Thunderbirds strip ran right across the spread allowing the artist complete freedom of layout. But later, when the strip proved popular with continental and American audiences, a centre gutter was introduced splitting the weekly instalment into two distinct pages, making it easier to fit the formats of foreign comics. Despite the limitations of having to depict rather ‘wooden’ characters, Bellamy consistently created imaginative spreads for the series throughout his three-year stint on the strip. It is probably no exaggeration to say that his “Thunderbirds” strip has been a contributing factor in ensuring the characters continuing popularity and his work has featured in most of the reprints of the strip.

Throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s Bellamy contributed to many quality periodicals including The Sunday Times, Look And Learn and Radio Times. His work for Radio Times, all featuring the popular character, Dr. Who, is amongst his most sought-after from the 1970s. His first contribution to the weekly was a two and a half page strip, two pages of which were in full colour, based on part of the storyline of episode one of the Dr. Who story, Colony In Space. This appeared in Radio Times for 10 April, 1971. In January, 1972, Bellamy started a run of small illustrations, (the majority of which were only slightly larger than a postage stamp) to accompany the programme details of “Dr. Who” in the magazine. These appeared intermittently throughout the 1970s, the last in July 1976.

The jewel in the crown of Bellamy’s Radio Times work is undoubtedly his striking cover for the issue for January 1, 1972, to accompany the first episode of Day of the Daleks. This has the distinction of being one of only two artwork (as opposed to photographic) Dr. Who covers to appear on Radio Times. A copy in VG condition will set you back anything up to £40.00. Almost as desirable is the issue for 30 August, 1975, containing a full-page, full-colour illustration to accompany the Doctor Who story, The Terror of the Zygons. The illustration depicts Tom Baker as ‘The Doctor’ together with the Lock Ness Monster.

The Bellamy Radio Times Doctor Who illustrations were reprinted in 1985 in “Dr. Who Timeview: The Complete Doctor Who Illustrations of Frank Bellamy”, published by Who Dares. This volume was published in both hardback and softback format but copies of the hardback are scarce, indicating a very small print run, and a VG+ copy of this laminated book will cost around fifteen to twenty pounds. The softback, however, is still fairly readily available and will cost the collector around six or seven pounds. Who Dares also published limited edition prints of the two full-page colour illustrations. Incidentally, the other Doctor Who artwork cover for the magazine, which accompanied the adventure, “The Five Doctors”, was painted by Andrew Skilleter who was, in fact, the man behind Who Dares publishing.

In 1971 he took over the Garth strip in the Daily Mirror. The muscle-bound adventurer had been created in 1943 and drawn for most of its existence by Steve Dowling. His first Garth strip was "Sundance", which had been started by John Allard. When that adventure came to an end, in October 1971, he followed it with a series of superbly drawn daily strips, some of the most memorable being “Wolf Man of Ausensee”, “The Spanish Lady”, and “Ghost Town” Bellamy brought a new vitality to the character and made him very much his own. A number of the Bellamy Garth strips have been reprinted. Some appeared in the two issues of The Daily Mirror Book of Garth, published in1975 and 1976 respectively. In these reprints some of Bellamy’s curvatious ladies – always a feature of his Garth strips – had their ample bosoms covered for the younger readers who were expected to find the book in their Christmas stockings. ‘Unexpurgated’ reprints appeared in two large format softbacked volumes published by Titan in 1985, both of which still frequently turn up on dealers’ lists and will cost the collector around ten pounds each, and also in the three very limited edition reprints published by John Dakin in 1979/1980 (each limited to 250 copies) which will cost rather more than that – if you can locate copies. Frank Bellamy worked on “Garth” 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.

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