The golden age of the newspaper cartoon strip – much like the golden age of the newspaper – is long gone, and while many strips have entered the public zeitgeist, others have come and gone in a short space of time and are practically forgotten now. One such strip was James Childress’ Conchy, which ran in American newspapers from 1970 to 1977. I would never have heard of the strip if I hadn’t bought a copy of the 1973 book Conchy on the Half Shell, as part of a shrink-wrapped collection of four paperbacks while on a day trip to Blackpool as a kid. Conchy was the unknown quantity of the collection, but proved to be the most entertaining, and it’s a book that I have returned to on many occasions, enjoying the curious universe that it portrays.
Conchy was the lead character of a strip set on a desert island, where the main characters were a bunch of beachcombers and the local inhabitants – as well as guest appearances from demons, aliens and enemy agents from a rival island. the humour was very 1970s liberal, cynical and often surreal, and the strip switched from single three-panel gags to on-going stories that might last for several strips. Childress mixed comedy and social commentary, with some philosophical musings on the side. It’s quite a winning combination.
Childress produced the strip independently, first creating the characters in the early 1960s. Combining the strip with a day job, he struggled to sell it to syndicates before setting up a fake agency in order to market the strip directly to newspapers. By 1974, he’d managed to place Conchy in 150 newspapers, and had three collections published as books – Conchy, Man of the Now, Conchy on the Half Shell (which was an abridged and expanded version of the first book) and Conchy, Living in Tomorrow’s Past.
By the mid-Seventies, Childress had a real agency representing him, but it was a difficult relationship – they wanted him to stick to straight-forward gags and avoid the political stuff. He refused, and was soon dropped. But he continued to build a market, and Conchy was developing a significant fan base.
Unfortunately, in 1977, Conchy came to a sudden halt. Beset with financial problems and caught in a bitter custody battles with his ex-wife, Childress took his own life at the end of January. there final strips were published in March that year.
The strip has long been out of print – the books, if you can find them, sell for a pretty penny to the handful of people who remember the strip, which has not been reprinted since Childress’ death. I imagine the rights are in something of a limbo, but it would be great to see someone gathering this material together and bringing it to a new generation.