Monday, 24 April 2017

Clerics, Critters and Daytime TV

Since retiring and becoming a gentleman of leisure, I have become quite taken with one or two Daytime TV shows.  Not Jeremy Kyle and nothing to do with antiques, house renovations or cookery.  No, my interest has been peaked by some of the original crime drama shows that BBC puts on in the afternoon.     Nothing too bloody or gory but some of the shows have real wit to them and some very good writing.

Our first glimpse of the poster
One show I'm particularly fond of is Father Brown, a (very) loose adaptation of stories by G K Chesterton and a show that is both gentle and entertaining.  I missed part of this year's series and am only catching up now.  While watching episode 14, "Lights in the Sky", I noticed something that may of interest to comic fans.

The story involves an Indian family, a murderous doctor and a locked room killing.   The usual fare for a weekday afternoon.  At one point we catch a glimpse of a science fiction poster on the wall of the young Indian boy who is always seen reading 'those dreadful comics".  Something about it caught my attention, I remember thinking to myself, "I know that picture", but where from?

And now in focus
Later on we get a much better, and in focus, look and all become clear.  The image is a version of the cover of Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction number one.  A Marvel magazine cover-dated January 1975.  A better view appears later in the show and we get to see the changes that have been made.

The poster now appears to be for a movie, "Monsters From Mars" and the whole thing has been reversed, forming a mirror image of the original cover.  The terrified couple, facing out towards the viewer on the magazine cover, are replaced by a slightly unconvincing man with his back to us.

The poster is nothing to do with the story, other than establishing that the kid had an interest in space stories.  In the end the plot revolves around a 'Chinese Lantern' that is advertised in the back of the some of the comics in the room which Father Brown is seen reading eagerly at one point.

There is, perhaps, a minor point being made about the moral panic that surrounded comics in the fifties, but overall this is yet another mild-mannered murder mystery totally suitable for watching with afternoon tea and a few nice scones.

The Freas/Romita collaboration
But this is not the first time that changes have been made to this painting.  "Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction" was  a strange comic.  It was created following the cancellation of the Marvel colour comic, 'Worlds Unknown', an anthology title that published adaptations of classic short stories from the Golden Age of the Science Fiction Magazine.  It had featured stories by L Sprague DeCamp, Theodore Sturgeon and A E van Vogt.  It also had an adaptation of the Frederick Brown story which became the Arena episode of Star Trek.

The colour comic failed and the Black and White magazine must have been seen as a rival to the Warren comics which had begun to feature a little more science fiction.

The first issue contained only a little new material.  A framing sequence based on Bob Shaw's 'Slow Glass' and the first part of two episode adaptation of "Day of the Triffids", probably intended for the cancelled colour comic, were all there was.

The reprints, however, were something special.  Taken from Fanzines and small print-run alternative comics were stories by Neal Adams, Frank Brunner and Al Williamson along with an early work by Mike Kaluta.

Admission of the changes from issue 3
All this behind a cover by one of the best known Science Fiction Artists of the time.  Frank Keely Freas' art had first appeared in Weird tales, over the next fifty years he painted covers for Astounding Science Fiction, Mad magazine and countless books and magazines.

He painted the insignia for Skylab, portraits of more than 500 saints for the Franciscans and the cover of Queen's album News of the World.  He was the winner of eleven Hugo awards, the science fiction equivalent of the Oscar, as best science fiction artist and yet when he handed in his cover for Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction issue one Marvel felt they had to change it.

The version published is credited to Frank Kelly Freas and John Romita and it is obvious that the couple cowering behind the wall as the freakish, and heavily armed, aliens approach have been added by Romita.   The team admitted as much in issue three when they published a look at the original version.  Perhaps the girl's mini-skirt was deemed too racy, but personally I think the style of the humans was simply too different from the Marvel style of art.

The 1979 Aussie Version
A better reproduction of the original cover turned up in an unusual place.  In 1979 the Yaffa publishing company in Australia published a complete reprint of Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction number one.  Somehow the wrong cover proof had been sent to them by Marvel and the original Frank Kelly Freas cover was published in full colour for the first time on the Australian edition of a comic that had been published in America almost five years earlier.

I find it fascinating that this cover was selected by art directors for different purposes over a space of almost fifty years and changed, twice.  First by Marvel comics, when the human characters were judged inappropriate in some way, and then by the art department on the Father Brown TV show.

Some of the modern changes were totally necessary, the seventies garb of the replacement figures would have been out of place on the wall of a fifties school-boy.  But I'm not quite sure why the image was flipped as if in a mirror.

It is interesting that all the way through the weird, frightening aliens that were a feature of Frank Kelly Freas' work remained unchanged.  Funny thought, I didn't see his name on the credits.  

More details of the Australian version of Unknown Worlds can be found on Daniel Best's excellent blog, 20th Century Danny Boy 

And in a case of great minds thinking alike, I discover that John Freeman has already covered the same story in his excellent Down the Tubes web-site, the most comprehensive web-site on British comics.

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