Inspired by the shop fittings, the wonderful Co-op, and the vintage television sets seen
at Beamish, I've brought along a small collection of late fifties/early sixties American
comics representing many western television series that were incredibly popular during
the baby boomer era. These mainly came from Woolworth's in Lynn Street or the
wonderful comic stall on the market.
Early television was exclusively the domain of the BBC under the straight-laced Lord
Reith, and broadcast many dull and worthy programmes considered to be ‘good for you'
rather than entertaining. The early valve and cathode ray tube TV sets were subject to
all kinds of disruption from 'snow', 'picture roll', distortion and other outside electrical
interference (a neighbour using a vacuum cleaner was enough). Being still a novelty, we
watched everything giving full undivided attention to this flickering 12 inch black and
white box in the corner. The programmes were less visual but the writing was much
more literate, closer to 'radio with pictures', in fact 'Gunsmoke' the longest running
Western series ever that ran for 21 years began on radio.
When the brash new ITV network arrived in the form of Tyne Tees Television around
1957 everything changed and more populist programmes appeared. At the same time,
sales and rentals of television sets increased, in spite of a condescending disapproval
from teachers with warnings that the exciting new medium would rot our brains, ruin our
education (because we wouldn't do our homework) and encourage us talk in 'slang' and
turn into juvenile delinquents or teddy boys. Basically, if it was fun, it was forbidden!
Both ITV and the BBC (more reluctantly, in order to compete) began importing exciting
series made on film by the big Hollywood studios with all the gloss and action that was
so sadly lacking in the home-grown product. Vulgar (in other words, immensely popular)
series like 'Gun Law' (the British title for 'Gunsmoke'),'Cheyenne', 'Maverick' and
'Wagon Train' could empty the streets, and were the talk of the school playground.
Supporting these popular westerns came the spin-off comics produced by Dell/Western
Printing and Lithographing of Racine Wisconsin, who were actually a subsidiary of
Disney and this is reflected in the high quality of the artwork often drawn by ex -Disney
animators, which was a strong influence on my own drawing. Being Disney, they felt
'above' the 'comics code' that was imposed on all other U.S. comics at the time. Instead
they included a 'pledge to parents' assuring that the comic only contained 'good clean
Initially, a Manchester company, World Distributors had the licence to reprint these
comics in the UK and they were produced by the Co-op printers at Reddish in Stockport
and distributed to the larger Co-ops and selected newsagents. So, my first encounter
with these comics was one Saturday morning in 1960 out shopping with my mother in
the Co-op arcade. There was the thrill of being unexpectedly confronted by a display of
titles, because the Co-op had never sold comics before, then the dilemma of deciding
which one to buy! I went for the 'Wagon Train' which was the most popular show on TV
at the time. I went back week after week and thus began my (still ongoing) collection.
The WDL reprints cost a shilling, but soon the directly imported 10 cent American
originals were appearing in Woolworths for just ninepence! My collection grew. Any
gaps could be filled by trading old Beanos and Dandys etc for missing issues on the
comic stall in the covered market. I've included just a few of the best remembered titles
The phenomenal popularity of westerns on TV lasted over ten years, peaking in the
early sixties when there seemed to be at least one western on every night. The stories
always had a strong moral, and contrary to the criticism of worthy adults (who I suspect
never properly watched them) they were NOT full of slang and violence, and neither
were the comics which were reviled by teachers for the same reason. They were
certainly a strong influence on my wanting to become a comic illustrator and few years
on, in October 1968, my leaving Hartlepool to work for publishers D.C.Thomson in
Dundee coincided with the demise of Lynn Street where so many of my comics were
The American comics, were often referred to as 'comic books' and with glossy covers
and a slightly smaller format, outlasted the more 'throwaway' British letterpress
Thomson and Fleetway comics that were usually thrown out with the newspapers every
week. Happily the westerns have survived and can still be picked up on ebay, albeit at
ever increasing prices.