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Wizard time to be a boy; Time to remember.

Byline: Dan O'Neill

THE covers alone were enough to make George Orwell's eyes pop.

On one, he gasped, "a man in airman's costume is fighting a rat somewhat larger than a donkey".

On another, "a nearly naked man of tremendous muscular development has just seized a lion by the tail and flung it 30 yards over the wall of an arena with the words 'Take back your blooming lion'".

While on a third, a cowboy clinging by his toes to the wing of an aeroplane in mid-air is "shooting down another aeroplane with his revolver".

The covers of just three of the "tuppenny books" which Orwell read with mounting disbelief as he prepared his famous essay on Boys' Weeklies for the March, 1940 edition of the high-toned monthly, Horizon. Predictably, George was not impressed.

But hundreds of thousands of boys from 10 to 16 were, for each week, in these "vilely printed tuppenny papers with their lurid illustrations" (George again), they could find wonder, thrills, and above all heroes who acted out their dreams on those, yes, vilely-printed pages.

How many 15-year-olds could swing a lion by its tail? All of them, vicariously, as they accompanied Strang the Terrible or Morgyn the Mighty on yet another odyssey.

How many could run a mile in three minutes or leap a 30-foot trench filled with ravenous alligators?

Again, all of 'em - as they joined Wilson, the 145-year-old Wonderman, on his adventures.

The revolution that brought Strang and Morgyn, Wilson and Alf Tupper (The Tough of the Track) along with Lionheart Logan and Red Circle School and yes, the Dandy and Beano as well, is 80 years old this very day.

It began on September 17, 1921, when a new addition to Orwell's Boys' Weeklies arrived and things in the corner newsagent would never be the same again.

For here was Adventure, first of what its publishers D C Thomson would call the Big Five, as Rover and Wizard, Skipper and Hotspur followed. Adventure's first cover promised "real photographs" of famous footballers FREE each week. Famous? Who now remembers Dimmock of Spurs? Or "the brilliant and dashing Chedgzoy of Everton".

Up until that memorable day, the Gem, appearing first in 1907, and the Magnet, home of Billy Bunter, had pretty much dominated the market for Adventure's age group.

They featured stories in the tradition of Tom Brown's Schooldays and the earlier "penny dreadfuls", offering kids leaving school at 14 a world in which boys of the same age routinely got a fiver a week pocket money.

Instead, Adventure gave them Jimmy Powers, boxing footballer and, keeping abreast of the times, Syd Osborne, the Wireless Kid.

All pretty tame stuff to what was coming. As Adventure and then Rover and Wizard rolled up their sleeves, readers would meet boys who could become invisible, who could fly, who could assume superhuman strength - handy when discovering lost civilisations in impenetrable jungles, or deformed villains who came up from ancient cave systems at the head of an army of dinosaurs (shades of Jurassic Park).

There was a six-gun toting gorilla, seeking vengeance for the murder of his master; there were teachers made of iron; and it was an odd school that wasn't suddenly transported to another planet or taken over by aliens. There was even one for the sons of gangsters.

In his essay, Orwell conceded that Billy Bunter was "a first rate character". The Big Five, otherwise known as the Dundee School, would offer an entire galaxy of characters headed by the greatest of all, the immortal Wilson.

Wilson was around 145 years old.

He lived on the Yorkshire Moors on a diet of berries and roots and routinely broke every world record before being sent on travels that took him up against Roman legions, surviving in the jungle and a mad, black emperor whose own Olympics included events like that abovementioned long jump over a pit full of alligators.

Alf Tupper was the second most famous athlete. His diet was fish and chips and he'd leave the scrapyard where he worked to break yet another record after his cod and six pennuth.

Then there was the Wolf of Kabul - showing that the region has always been a place of conflict. He kept order on that North West frontier, aided only by Chung the Terrible, whose weapon was a brass-bound bat known to all as "clicky ba".

Ah yes, countless were the skulls cracked by clicky ba.

There were soccer stories, too, of course. But forget Cardiff City - these teams were formed of convicts or run by a master hypnotist or kidnapped each week to play for their lives or . . . well, you get the idea.

Orwell might have been right when he dismissed his Boys' Weeklies as so much rubbish.

But it was rubbish that led thousands of youngsters on to other reading - how many reached Hamlet's castle by way of the Hotspur's Red Circle School?
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Copyright 2001 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:Features
Publication:South Wales Echo (Cardiff, Wales)
Date:Sep 17, 2001
Words:820
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