The weird and wonderful world of the comic book cover-mounted freebie.
British comics, in their most traditional format, have long been a rather unique phenomenon, unlike their equivalents anywhere else in the world. The classic idea of a British comic is a weekly publication, more or less magazine-sized (with slight variations between publishers and publications, sometimes changing mid-run) and consisting of several strips that were between one and six pages long. They were printed on pulp paper, mostly black and white or two-colour printed – with a colour centre-spread where prestige strips would appear – and aimed very much at young kids.
One of the most enduring aspects of the British weekly was the idea of the free gift. It was pretty much unthinkable for a new weekly to launch without free gifts included in the first few issues – anything from two to five editions, depending on the publisher and the level of the push being given. These gifts were often cover-mounted by way of being sellotaped to the front, which meant that removing them could be precarious and so first editions of British comics without cover damage of some sort are often hard to find. The gifts were also, for the most part, immediately disposable, so finding copies with the gift intact – especially if it was something bulky – is also close to impossible. Back in the days when British comics were at their peak, no one was placing much value on them – even when old American comic books were selling for huge amounts at auction, their British equivalents were generally seen as worthless – so few people were buying two copies of first editions, one to read and one to keep as an investment.
Trends in free gifts would come and go, very much depending on the publisher and the style of the comic. At their best, they were a genuine enhancement, connected to the actual comic book content; at worst, an after-thought that felt a bit like an insult. These latter efforts – random cheap crap that the publisher had been able to source in bulk – probably didn’t do much to improve sales of a new title and often felt like a contractual obligation from a publisher that didn’t really want to do the whole ‘free gift’ thing in the first place but knew that it was expected of them. A particular low came from Marvel UK in the late 1970s when the launches of The Complete Fantastic Four and Rampage Weekly – two new comics that tried to reinvent the idea of the British weekly (the FF comic had only two strips – one that continued from where the US reprints had left off in another Marvel weekly and a back-up reprint of the original US comics from the first issue onwards). Both came with clip-together plastic aircraft that had no connection whatsoever to the comic strips and were too shoddy to work on any level. All they did was compromise the cover art with a box-out that frankly struggled to show much enthusiasm for the gift.
Marvel UK was very hit and miss with gifts. The ‘free aircraft’ idea had been initiated with Star Wars Weekly, though at least these were cardboard cut-out models of the actual X-Wing and TIE fighter ships from the film. Doctor Who Weekly came with free transfers for the first few issues that felt equally disposable (and indeed were, as it was definitely hit and miss whether you would get one, two or none after the first issue when the covermount switched to the tiny sheet simply being shoved inside the comic’s pages) but early issues of Spider-Man Comics Weekly and The Mighty World of Marvel – the company’s first two UK publications – came with masks, iron-on T-shirt transfers and stickers. In the mid-Seventies, Marvel specialised in free posters in the first issue and nothing after that – Dracula Lives, Planet of the Apes, Savage Sword of Conan, The Super-Heroes and The Titans all had fold-out, glossy colour posters that were actually something that the reader wanted and could keep – either pinned on their bedroom wall or kept inside the comic. It’s this sort of gift – the flat insert – that you are most likely to find still inside a comic today. With Captain Britain, they gave away a cardboard mask and (in issue 2) a ‘boomerang’ that invariably didn’t work. By the early 1980s, when Marvel UK was struggling to find anything that worked, short-lived titles like Marvel Team-Up, Future Tense, Forces in Combat and Valour offered stickers, jigsaws and multi-part spaceship models that felt as random, desperate and disposable as the comics themselves.
If Marvel never quite understood the UK market, their rivals at IPC and D.C. Thompson had practically invented it. There was a rough rule of thumb for free gifts from these two publishers – for the humour books, any old ‘hilarious’ novelty like a whoopee cushion or plastic spider was fine; for girls’ comics, anything that vaguely passed as jewellery seemed fine, even in the supernaturally-flavoured Misty; for the boys’ action-adventure books, a bit more effort was required. The plastic planes would still turn up here, of course, though perhaps were less incongruous in a title like Action, where the idea was to cover everything that boys apparently liked – and in any case, there was more fun to be had from a plastic plane that you could ‘fly’ than with a model kit that didn’t even fit together properly. In fact, the practical toy that you could take outside and play with was a staple gift of the time, none more famous than the simple but brilliant 2000AD Space Spinner, a mini-frisbee that would prove so popular that variations on it would be used to launch Tornado and the rebooted Eagle years later. What’s more, if you were careful, you could remove it from the cover, have fun with it and then sellotape it back on later, ensuring that your first edition remained intact.
Action was a classic example of a boys comic hedging its bets – as well as a plastic plane, the free gifts included football trading cards – because everyone loves football, right? – and a Hookjaw iron-on transfer. No prizes for guessing which of these is the most sought-after giveaway today. Similarly, D.C. Thompson’s Action knock-off The Crunch went from the sublime – a steel skull pin, a plastic wristband – to the ridiculous (a poster of Barry Sheene). Gifts that actually had some connection with the comic were always the best – they at least felt relevant and as though some thought had gone into it. 2000AD followed the Space Spinner with ‘biotronic’ stickers that you could put on your arms, legs and face to look just like Six Million Dollar Man knock-off strip M.A.C.H. 1 (and later lose a layer of skin while later removing them) and a ‘survival wallet’ that encouraged you to cut pages out of the comic and stuff them inside just in case the resistance called you up. Tornado would have a similar ‘Mayday Wallet’ as a giveaway a few years later – if an idea worked, it was bound to be repeated.
In the humour papers, anything went as far as free gifts were concerned. Monster Fun offered a ‘plate wobbler’ that – of course, didn’t work – alongside a spider ring and a plastic skeleton; Krazy gave away vampire teeth and a water-squirting camera; Whoopee had a selection of practical jokes, which seemed to be the most popular sort of gift for kids who tried to feel their parents into thinking that they’d hammered a nail through their finger.
As comic book sales began to decline, the free gift became more omnipresent. Outside of the first few issues, comics would occasionally offer a free gift to boost sales and attract new readers – 2000AD gave away Judge Dredd badges from time to time, for instance. Sometimes, free gifts were also a promotional tie-in with another company – long before Panini bought Marvel UK, the first issue of Hulk Comic gave away trading cards for the Incredible Hulk TV series alongside the book to stick them in. But soon, the free gift became an essential selling point, more the rule than the exception. Weeklies today come with cover-mounted gifts on pretty much every issue – but then, so do many magazines aimed at adults as falling sales are combatted with more giveaways. I’m not sure how well this helps sales in the long run – after all, if people are buying something for the gift rather than the content, they are unlikely to remain as regular readers – but perhaps it is all part of an enhanced experience that makes the printed page seem more attractive than simply reading online. Certainly, computer magazines learned many years ago that a cover disc was essential to maintain sales.
Such ubiquity rather takes away from the special nature of the free gift though – rather than actually being a free gift, it now just becomes part of the greater whole. Back in the golden age of British comics, free gifts were exciting bonuses, eagerly anticipated – and often wildly disappointing, of course. They were, and are, the very essence of ephemeral pleasures, rarely being kept even until the next issue appeared a week later – but they do somehow tell us as much about the world that they appeared in as the actual comics themselves do – a simpler time with simpler pleasures where a free cardboard ‘space calculator’ was a genuine magical treat.
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