The first volume of the collected Ken Reid strips from Odhams’ 1960’s titles Wham!, Pow! and Smash! was largely dominated by monstrous mirth-maker Frankie Stein, with just the final dozen pages of the book turned over to the short-lived Jasper the Grasper. This second volume is much more of a mixture, comprising as it does three of Reid’s minor masterpieces in their entirety: Queen of the Seas, Dare-a-Day Davy and The Nervs. However, mash-up though it may be, there’s certainly no drop in quality here; indeed, it’s a delight from start to finish.
Perhaps the single most striking thing about Reid’s comedic work, given that its target audience was basically grubby-fingered ten-yea- olds, is how surprisingly literate it is. The very first line of Queen of the Seas is a quote from Christopher Columbus, while later in the series (because like a number of Reid’s other strips, this is very definitely a serial, even coming to a very definite conclusion) we are treated to an explanation of the phenomenon known as St. Elmo’s Fire. Reid never underestimates his audience, and that is a big part of what makes his work so funny, particularly when compared to the often depressingly dumb one-page gag strips that would dominate many British comics in the following two decades.
Another big part of his appeal, of course, is the characters themselves, in the case of Queen of the Seas the ambitious but luckless skipper of the Buoyant Queen, Enoch Drip and his sole crewman, first mate Bertram Bloop… though in every practical sense, the distinctions between them make little difference, as Bloop clearly sees himself as at the very least Enoch’s equal, and spends much of his time either ordering his captain around or insulting him! The hapless pair lurch from one disaster to another over the course of seventeen two-page strips and another twenty-three single-pagers, generally watching their ship sink at least once in every story, before finally retiring after an unexpected windfall, a curiously satisfying conclusion as the reader cannot help but become emotionally invested in them.
Less character-driven but ramping up Reid’s patented ‘yuck’ factor by several dozen degrees is the revoltingly funny The Nervs, about the misadventures of a society of tiny beings living inside the body of a greedy, not very bright kid called Fatty (a name which probably wouldn’t be considered as acceptable in these more enlightened times). Unlike Enoch and Bert, Fatty isn’t really a particularly engaging character, but then, he’s not actually the star of the strip, merely a vehicle carrying his minuscule passengers from one chaotic situation to another. The Nervs might actually qualify as body horror if it weren’t so ridiculous; as it is, it’s tremendous fun! Who could fail to laugh at the Nervs’ ill-fated attempts to set the grotesque Fatty up with the short-lived object of his affections, the gorgeous Georgina Goodbody (a name straight out of a James Bond movie) in order to prevent his heart (itself depicted as a gibbering monstrosity) from breaking?
Probably the weakest strip of the three featured in this collection, at least for me, is Dare-a-Day Davy, but that that’s probably because of the restrictions built into the strip by its one unique selling point: every week, Pow! readers were invited to write in with a dare for Davy to carry out, with the one chosen winning its originator the princely sum of one pound! Sadly, while this gives Reid something to latch onto in devising each week’s strip, it also means he has little scope to give his imagination free rein, and each week’s strip has to be done-in-one rather than being able to follow the serial format which is undoubtedly one of his great strengths.
Davy himself is a less likeable character than Frankie or the crew of the Buoyant Queen, but then, he really has to be, in order to allow the readers to set him unpleasant tasks. Still, even if the Davy strip is not Reid’s finest work, it’s still head and shoulders above 90% of the output of many of his contemporaries, and that isn’t intended to denigrate any other creator in any way. Simply put, Ken Reid was a genius, and the evidence for that statement is right here in these two hundred-odd (very odd) pages. So what are you waiting for? Go and buy the bloomin’ thing!
Ken Reid (W/A) • Irmantas Povilaika, £25.99
Review by Tony Ingram