Sunday, April 25, 2010

Return to the Wonderful WAGS of Oz

One thing I've learned in life is that you never stop learning.

No sooner had I put up my earlier post about the WAGS tabloid of Australia, when I received an email from Peter Hansen. Peter, a British comic historian transplanted to Canada, related to me his similar interest in WAGS and better yet, he had an extensive collection of that title. Even better, he had researched the background of WAGS publication. Rather than keep his insights for myself, with Peter's kind agreement, I'd like to share his research with you all.

"Wags really started in Buenos Aires in 1933 when Joshua B. Powers worked with Thomas Volney Boardman for the wire service United Press International, a kind of an American version of Reuters.

Powers quit and went back to the US to start up Editors Press Service selling US comic strips to South American papers and Boardman headed to Britain to work for Editors Press Service trying to sell US strips to British newspapers. American newspaper strips hadn't really made it to the UK at the time with the exception of "Mickey Mouse", but in 1936 a familiar sounding comic called OKAY COMICS went on sale in Woolworths stores and on market stalls around the UK.

The comic was made up of recycled US Sunday newspaper supplements with a new wraparound cover. Boardman & Powers? Don't know that we will ever know but it does sound like a hell of a coincidence. Maybe the comic didn't sell as the US comic supplements were full newspaper size and British comics of the day were half the size. Perhaps Powers decided to change the format and try again with a comic that matched the English comic size and a uniquely English sounding name WAGS which is the English vernacular for a bunch of Jokers.

However WAGS came about the British WAGS appeared on January 1, 1937 with 32 pages and ran every week until November 4, 1938 shrinking to 16 pages along the way for a total of 88 issues. Originally printed in the US with the J.B. Powers United Press imprint for export to the UK until issue #31 when it began carrying the imprint of TV Boardman. Eisner strips appeared in the British version from #16 (April 16, 1937).

Eventually the following strips made their debut over the time of the series:

Peter Pupp - Bob Kane (Issue #16)

Peter Pupp cover
WAGS vol. 2, #16
[image courtesy of Peter Hansen]

Tom Sherrill - Don De Conn
Hunchback of Notre Dame - Dick Briefer (issue #17)
The Clock Strikes - George Brenner (Issue #38) also Ed Cronin

The Clock Strikes
WAGS vol. 2, #36

Spencer Steel - "Dennis Colebrook" scripts and art, sometimes art by Bob Powell (Issue #24?)
Scrappy - Eisner (issue #39)
Sheena - Eisner/Powell (issue #46 November 1937) non de plume "Morgan Thomas". Mort Meskin soon takes over with later issues by Bob Powell from February 1939 (Volume 2 #38 in Australia).

The first appearance of Sheena
WAGS vol. 2, #38
[image courtesy of Peter Hansen]

Note the resemblance between the character in the above panel and a young Will Eisner!

Hawks of the Seas - Will Eisner as "Willis Rensie" (issue #16)
Count of Monte Cristo - Early issues Jack Kirby (from issue #64) as "Jack Curtiss", but most by Lou Fine as "Jack Cortez" from September 1938.

The Count of Monte Cristo
as reprinted in JUMBO #4 (Dec. 1938)
by Lou Fine

Yarko the Great - Eisner
Gallant Knight - Vernon Henkel

Gallant Knight
WAGS vol. 4, #16

(Modern) 'Planes - Les Marshall

A number of people have hinted that there was a falling out between Powers and Boardman but this isn't the case. T.V. Boardman's imprint came into force in WAGS on July 9th 1937 and OKAY COMICS WEEKLY (there's that name again) his own imprint hit the newsstands on October 16, 1937 and ran every Wednesday until February 26, 1938 for approximately 20 issues.

OKAY COMICS WEEKLY vol. 1 #1 (Oct. 16, 1937)
by Denis Gifford

OKAY COMICS WEEKLY was the first British reprint of original American comics including "Terry and the Pirates" whose publishing rights were owned by Powers.

Both used the Eisner/Iger shop and the WAGS pages ran as continuing weekly strips the same as the British comics. Finally J.B. Powers was a senior Director of T.V. Boardman Ltd. until his death in the early 1950's
[note: Powers actually died in 1989], and Boardman and his family spent the whole of the war in Buenos Aires where he first worked with Powers, leaving a Tasmanian woman who had been with him since before the war called Dorothy Weir in charge while he was away. Boardman continued publishing until 1967.

When Eisner began printing his WAGS material in the US comics such as JUMBO COMICS whose first issue was completely WAGS material and to do this he bought the original WAGS plates back from Powers and printed the artwork for JUMBO the same size as WAGS to reduce costs, but it didn't catch on with US comic buyers and he gave up after 7 or 8 issues. Australians began printing American strips before the Brits with "Brick Bradford", "Mandrake the Magician" and "Buck Rogers" all making their debuts in 1935/36. So it made sense that the Herald & Weekly Times Group would approach Powers to print a weekly comic for the Australian market. Or perhaps they knew the Tasmanian woman working for Boardman?"

I would like to add a few comments and art attributions that didn't make Peter's list.

Both "The Diary of Dr. Hayward" and "Wilton of the West" likely first appeared in WAGS and briefly had Jack Kirby as their artist. And both features were doubly blessed as they were taken over from Kirby by the great Lou Fine.

The Diary of Dr. Hayward
by Jack Kirby
as reprinted in KIRBY: KING OF COMICS
by Mark Evanier

Another worthy strip premiering in WAGS was "Tex Maxon" drawn by longtime cartoonist/illustrator Munson Paddock.

Tex Maxon
WAGS vol. 4, #16

My sources generally agree that the "Dennis Colebrook" who drew "Spencer Steel" was an Eisner/Iger house name and not an actual artist. One artist thought to have worked under the pseudonym was Edwin Laughlin, who, in his short comic book career, is known to have worked on "Gilda Gay", a feature also drawn by Bernard Baily. "Gilda Gay" was a daily strip produced by Eisner/Iger for newspaper distribution and reprinted in JUMBO.

I'm not convinced that "Scrappy" was the work of Will Eisner. Both Jerry Iger and Bob Kane had already worked in a style similar to "Scrappy" and I'm inclined to believe one or the other drew it.

as reprinted in JUMBO #4 (Dec. 1938)
by S. M. "Jerry" Iger

In a subsequent email, Peter explained the discrepancies between the British and Australian versions:

"Boardman and Powers start up WAGS on September 8, 1936 in Australia with 16 pages per issue. After 16 issues in Australia they start up WAGS in the UK with 32 pages per issue. After 15 issues of WAGS they replace some of the strips with Eisner/Iger material in issue #16 (8 pages B&W). So lets assume one of the syndicates dump Powers forcing him to go to Eisner/Iger. I know that the Eisner material in the Australian WAGS Vol 2 # 15 is the same as the UK WAGS Vol 1 #28. Chronologically the Australian issue would have hit the news stands approximately January 8, 1938 and the UK version of the same Eisner/Iger material would have hit the news stands in the UK on about July 16, 1937. So I now know there is about a five and a half month (24 weeks) lag in the Eisner/Iger material from the UK versus the Australian Eisner/Iger material.

Suddenly this all works!!!!

The UK WAGS initially printed 32 pages while the Australian issue initially printed only 16 pages. Looking at the copies I have here both of the identical issues of the Australian & UK comics have 24 pages, not 16, not 32. So it would seem that Powers lost 16 pages of syndicated material and was only able to supplement his comics with 8 pages of B&W material to make WAGS up to 24 pages. So if the WAGS in Australia carried on printing 16 pages of American reprints it would always be 12 weeks ahead for every UK issue printed. The Australian issue ended on June 7, 1940 after 197 issues.

If I look strictly at the page difference between what the UK WAGS would have pumped out in 1937 and what the Australian WAGS would have pumped out in 1937 the UK WAGS would have pumped out 1376 pages while the Australian WAGS would have pumped out 832 pages. Deduct one from the other and you end up at 22 weeks of 24 page issues which is five and a half months. The British version finished on November 4, 1938 only weeks after JUMBO #1 hit the stands in the US, and the Australian WAGS finished on June 7, 1940, so even if they went back to 16 pages in Australia after the UK WAGS folded they would only have about 45 weeks of reprint material available for the Australian issue which would have carried it to maybe October 1939 with their Eisner material in it. So the dates suggest to me that sometime in June or July 1938 Eisner/Iger bought the printing plates back from Powers and stopped supplying him and Powers used up his back stock up until November 4, 1938 then folded. I assume that Powers carried on with US reprints in Australia which had always been well established in Australia as opposed to the UK until the war act stopped the importation of paper into Australia in 1940.

I also suspect that the 16 issues of OKAY COMICS WEEKLY used up the back stock of the original US strips that appeared in the first 16 Australian WAGS issues, supplemented by Eisner covers and a British strip by Harry Parlet called "Larry the Lamb". I say this because OKAY COMICS WEEKLY came out on October 16, 1938, whereas Eisner/Iger came on board on April 23, 1938.

It doesn't make sense that Boardman would steal 16 pages of strips from Powers and then wait six months to run his comic. It seems more likely that they were partners all along and OKAY COMICS just reprinted the previously printed initial versions of the Australian WAGS issues.

If these things were not as rare as hens teeth and we had all of these issues we could prove this so it is just a theory right now. Oh well, maybe some day.”

Me again. This is GREAT information! Not only has Peter provided a detailed backstory of WAGS publishing history, he has also confirmed my guesses about the lag time between the British and Aussie versions and narrowed it down even more. The only fly in the ointment is that not every issue of the Aussie WAGS contained 8 pages of Eisner/Iger content. Of the three issues in my possession, two contain 7 pages and one issue has only 6 pages of their shop's material. This could alter Peter's timeline somewhat, but nonetheless, his thought process works in every other instance.

There is still more to be known about the features and creators that appeared in WAGS. Peter Hansen has provided a fantastic framework for that research and I welcome any other additions or corrections.

Uncovering and documenting the contents of this seminal comic is critical to comic book history. Not only was WAGS a wellspring of legendary talent and the original source of equally legendary features, but it expands the narrow focus of American comic book fandom to include a publication that bridged continents. The development of modern comic books were not exclusive to the U.S. and WAGS is key to understanding that concept.

Thank you Peter Hansen! Not only do you get a tip of the Comics Detective's deerstalker cap, but I do dub thee Peter the Great!


  1. J.B Powers, stepson to General Homer Lea and founder of the Caribbean Conservation Corporation, died in 1989, not in the early 1950s as stated above. See New York Times archives.

  2. You are indeed correct, Anonymous!

    In fact, while I knew this, I neglected to note the error when I posted Peter's article. I'll make that change right now.

    Thanks for keeping me on my toes!