Frank Bellamy's Robin Hood
Originally serialized in the Swift comic as:
Robin Hood and his Merry Men (1956 - 57, 42 parts)
Robin Hood and Maid Marian (1957, 25 parts)
Story by Clifford Makins
Art by Frank Bellamy
Collected as Frank Bellamy's Robin Hood: The Complete Adventures edited by Steve Holland, Book Palace Books, 2008.
Spotlight Article by Allen W. Wright
The 1950s were undoubtedly the high-point of Robin Hood’s comic book career. In North America, several companies published Robin Hood comics such as Robin Hood Tales by Quality Comics and later National/DC Comics. In the United Kingdom, Robin was a recurring star in the Thriller Comics Library from Amalgamated Press, and his story was also told in weekly two-page installments from 1956 to 1957 in Swift, an anthology comic magazine from Hulton Press. Written by Clifford Makins and drawn by Frank Bellamy, the Swift Robin Hood stories are – on a purely technical level at least -- the best depiction ever of the legend in comic book form.
The Swift comics have an unusual format. Panel illustrations of art with word balloons and thought bubbles (as in North American comics) sat on top of storybook text describing the action – a cross-between the traditional comic book and a picture book. As someone raised on North American comics, I often had to remind myself to stop and read the text sections. Bellamy’s illustrations are so dynamic and engaging that your eyes immediately jump to the next panel. Cut the text and little would be lost. This isn’t a knock on Makins’ text – which is a reasonably well-written tale for youngsters, but rather praise for the artistic gifts of Frank Bellamy who could convey so much through art alone. His rendering of the various characters is first rate; particularly notable is his occasional use of noir lighting and shadows which add a greater sense of depth than most comic art. A grandmaster of British comics illustration, Bellamy has sole billing on the cover of the 2008 collected edition. Art of this calibre would be the pinnacle of any other artist’s career, and it’s startling that this is only Bellamy in his early years.
The Swift Robin Hood is the son of Lord Alfred, the Earl of Huntingdon, and most of the future Merry Men are already Robin’s comrades at Newstead Tower. The opening installments are adapted from Major Charles Gilson’s 1940 novel titled either Robin of Sherwood or The Adventures of Robin Hood, depending on the edition. The Norman baron Robert the Wolf attacks Newstead Tower, killing the earl and causing Robin and friends to flee to the forest.
While the strip’s primary antagonists – Robert the Wolf, Sir Stephen and Geoffrey Malpert – are all drawn from Gilson’s novel, the strip takes increasing liberties with Gilson’s novel. Steve Holland noted two of the minor changes in his introduction to the 2008 reprint. Robin’s father is promoted from the novel’s Thane of Sherwood to the comic’s Earl of Huntingdon and Maid Marian (when she eventually appears) is converted from being Robin’s sister (an unusual feature of Gilson’s novel) to just being a good friend. Romantic elements are heavily subdued to avoid troubling or boring the comic’s audience of seven-to-ten-year-olds. Makins and Bellamy also include the famous quarterstaff duel from the ballad Robin Hood and Little John, which appears in most children’s novels, films and television series but not in Gilson’s novel where Little John is just one of Robin’s attendants at Newstead Tower. Also, in the comic series, King Richard disguises himself as a monk or abbot as in the ballad tradition and the 1938 film. Gilson has King Richard disguised as the Black Knight following Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe. While the opening owes a huge debt to Gilson, much of the later chapters only resemble Gilson in the way both the novel and comic resemble most 20th century Robin Hood stories – particular the film versions.
Also, Makins does not indulge in the faux-archaic language of Gilson’s novel. Gilson’s characters say things like “Thou art”, which Makins avoids except for certain moments, such as when one villain in the strip announces “I am slain!” as Robin kills him. No doubt pedants might be dismayed at one recurring modernism as Makins’ Robin Hood is sometimes said to “fire” an arrow – a phrase that’s like nails down a chalkboard for any toxophilite.
One of the most substantial narrative changes shows how Makins and Bellamy used the comic medium to its fullest. Gilson had used the story from the medieval ballad A Gest of Robyn Hode (and many children’s books) where Little John impresses the Sheriff of Nottingham with his skills at a fair and then enters the sheriff’s service for a time under the guise of Reynold Greenleaf. In the familiar tale, Little John eventually robs the sheriff’s household and then leads the sheriff into an ambush. Makins and Bellamy appear as if they are about to retell the same story. After watching the disguised outlaw win a wrestling contest, the sheriff announces he wants Little John in his service. But then, in a cliffhanger ending, one of the sheriff’s men recognizes Little John. The story moves radically away from the Reynold Greenleaf source as the next several issues contain much more dramatic action and reversals. Little John and the Merry Men have to fight their way out of Nottingham and flee in a rickety cart which literally falls apart. Robin Hood is taken captive and condemned to death, but Friar Tuck and the outlaws save their leader from the gallows (not entirely unlike the gallows rescue in the Errol Flynn film). Working in a primarily visual medium and with limited space, Makins and Bellamy recraft a relatively sedate sequence from the literary tradition into a thrilling series of captures and escapes that propel the youthful reader along, leaving him/her to wonder how things will turn out in the next issue. In many ways, Makins and Bellamy’s comic strip resembles the old movie serials – right down to the cliffhanger endings.
With the focus solidly on action, there’s little time for Robin’s usual robberies or charity. Robin ambushes the sheriff in an early issue and tells Little John “The weapons we will keep ourselves. The clothes and valuables we will give to the poor people of the land.” But we never actually see Robin redistribute the wealth. Much like Gilson’s novel, Makins and Bellamy’s Robin is more concerned about fighting Normans than acts of charity, although they avoid the extreme pro-Saxon racialism of Gilson’s novel. Robin’s avoidance of criminal activity might be connected to The Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955 which threatened fines and possible imprisonment for selling comics that showed among other things “the commission of crimes” “in such a way that the work as a whole would tend to corrupt a child or young person into whose hands it might fall.” By the mid-20th century, however, Robin’s crimes weren’t considered a source of youthful corruption so the true influence of the Act is questionable.
After yet more attacks, ambushes and dramatic rescues, the strip culminates in the climactic battle, where Robin shoots Robert the Wolf through the heart upon King Richard’s return. That week ends with the outlaws laughing, wondering what their new lives will hold.
The following week the strip gets a new title and new co-star when it is renamed “Robin Hood and Maid Marian”. The new serial opens with Robin, Allan-a-Dale and Little John in London, hanging out with their new female friends Maid Marian and Gwen (aside from a couple background figures in crowd scenes, no women appeared in the first 42 installments). King Richard is away in France, and the former outlaws are waiting for him to return and make good on his promise to restore their property. (If one follows that historical chronology of Richard’s life, the outlaws have been waiting five years for the king to keep his promises.) It is then announced that Richard was killed in France. Robin, Little John and Allan prepare to flee London and in the last panel of the first issue of the new serial, Marian and Gwen exclaim they are coming with the outlaws.
The rebranded strip carries on much as before with the same escapes, chases, rescues and ambushes – including another scene where a coach breaks apart during a chase sequence. In this case, Robin was smuggling a doctor out of Nottingham to help a fever stricken Marian. King John appears sparingly – the main villains are the Sheriff of Nottingham, Robert the Wolf’s old ally Sir Geoffrey Malpert and straight from the literary and cinematic tradition – Guy of Gisborne. In this strip, Gisborne is a Saxon yeoman, who declares “The Normans will never catch Robin Hood! They don’t know the forest – but I do!”
More prominent than any other Merry Man, Marian justifies her co-star billing by often saving Robin and the gang. Her attitude might be best described as plucky. She’s not a combat-trained fighter as in the most recent versions of the legend, but the comic book Marian still helps out. When Gisborne holds Marian and Robin captive, threatening with them death if they warn the other Merry Men of the ambush ahead, it’s Marian who risks death to shout the warning. Also, Marian catches a spy who threatens to burn down the outlaws’ camp. When the outlaws prepare an attack on Nottingham Castle to rescue Little John and Friar Tuck, Marian and Gwen are told to stay behind. The last panel of that week’s episode shows Marian thinking “If Robin thinks I’m going to stay behind he’s very much mistaken.” Marian and Gwen shroud their identities and gender in cloaks and tag along. Contrary to modern expectations, however, the girls don’t prove their worth. Right after Robin realizes that women are among them, Malpert corners Marian and Gwen, and all they can do is call for help. Mercifully Robin never gets the chance to tell the girls “I told you so” as this was the last installment of the series – which ends with the outlaws celebrating their latest victory.
Bellamy’s Robin Hood greatly resembles Errol Flynn with mustache and goatee. (And to my eye, Bellamy’s sheriff even more closely resembles Melville Cooper’s sheriff, also from the 1938 film.) In his introduction to the collected edition, Holland speculates that the Flynn look may have been to distance itself from the Richard Greene TV series at the time which they did not have the rights for. However, another British comic book Robin Hood at the time – the one in Thriller Comics Library series by Amalgamated Press – also had a mustache and goatee. American publishers – Magazine Enterprises, Quality Comics, National (or DC) Comics and Charlton – all opted for the clean-shaven, clean-cut 1950s Robin Hood, although it was only Magazine Enterprises that eventually secured media tie-in rights to the Richard Greene TV series, The Adventures of Robin Hood.
Facial hair isn’t the only difference between American and British depictions of the outlaw. While both the American and British comics minimize Robin’s insurrection by making most of his enemies “robber barons”, Prince -- and later King -- John plays only a minor role in the Swift comics (as with Gilson’s novel). In the American comics, the “usurper” Prince John is a constant presence. But in the Makins and Bellamy series, John’s right to rule (either as regent or later as king) is not truly called into question. Also, American Robin Hood comics of the 1950s often had Robin battling tax collectors – with the taxes called “unjust” and “illegal”. In a country founded by a revolution against the monarchy and corrupt taxes, Robin’s fight against taxes and the crown might seem more patriotic than it would be for British children.
Another difference is in the depiction of violence. Marcus Morris, the Anglican minister who launched Swift and its earlier and more famous companion magazine Eagle got his start by penning an article condemning American comics -- "Comics that bring Horror into the Nursery". But by the mid-1950s, most American comics had been cleaned up and were voluntarily following a “Comics Code” to tone down the violence. Death just wasn’t a factor in the world of 1950s American code-approved Robin Hood comics. But in Swift comic magazine (even though Britain had gone further than the United States by passing laws which explicitly censored comics) – both Robin and his enemies killed on occasion. The Swift comics were never gory about death – no blood gushed from arrow wounds. In the third episode we see Robin’s father killed on panel, but based on the angle of the sword on panel, it’s almost possible to imagine that the Norman had just clubbed Lord Alfred with the sword’s pommel rather than slashing him with the blade. In the 26th installment, a Merry Man is “mortally wounded” as a hail of Norman arrows whiz past him, but none of the arrows is actually seen entering the body. Later on, death was depicted more clearly as Robin dispatches Robert the Wolf with an arrow to the heart. But no matter how tastefully depicted, it was a departure from the death-free American comics. (The 2008 collected edition features an afterword “Bowdlerized Bellamy” which shows how death was edited out of the 1960s reprints of the Makins and Bellamy strips in Treasure magazine. Most strikingly in the reprint, the gallows where the sheriff unsuccessfully tried to hang the outlaws was changed to a less-fatal “whipping post”.)
As the product of a publishing empire founded by a clergyman hoping to instill Christian principles in his audience, the Robin Hood of Swift comics lacks something that was a constant presence in the legend – religion. Yes, Friar Tuck is still there. He’s too famous to be excluded. And it might not be so surprising that the clerical villains of the ballads – the villainous monk, the Prioress of Kirklees, the Abbot of St. Mary’s and the Bishop of Hereford – are nowhere to be seen. But the positive aspects of religion are missing too. Robin Hood does not say three masses daily or risk capture to go to church as he does in the ballads. The virtuous archbishop of the 1952 Richard Todd film doesn’t show up to cast the church in a good light. King Richard – although he wears a cross on his surcoat – is only said to be “fighting overseas”. The Crusades were mentioned by name in the 1950s Richard Greene TV series and the almost-completely secular Middle Ages of the 1950s American Robin Hood comics. Even when King Richard is clearly disguised as a monk or abbot (as can be seen by the great cloak, and the ballad tradition), the nature of his disguise is never mentioned. One might assume the heroes are Christian, but you never get definitive confirmation of that. Tuck’s declaration “God save the Earl!” in the second episode is the sole reference to a higher power. (Elsewhere in Swift, readers could follow the adventures of “The Boy David”, so the lack of religion in Robin Hood was not reflective of the magazine as a whole.)
For all the technical skill of Makins and especially Bellamy, the weakness in the Swift comics is one of absence. The dramatic rescues and adventure sequences have been a part of the legend from the 15th century ballad Robin Hood and the Monk to the modern films and TV shows. But there are other attributes of the legend that are largely missing – Robin Hood’s criminal activities for the most part and his sense of charity. Robin’s fight with the robber barons is largely a personal struggle. They threaten King Richard’s throne too, but largely the Norman villains are defined as a threat to Robin and his friends. We generally don’t see how the townspeople of Nottingham suffer. This is largely true of the ballads, but not so in the 20th century. The 1938 movie with Errol Flynn shows how the people of England suffer under Prince John’s rule. The 1955 TV series with Richard Greene focused many episodes on the social plights of the villagers and passersby. Not so with the Robin Hood of the Swift comics. Even when John comes to the throne in the strip’s Robin Hood and Maid Marian incarnation, Robin and his friends are concerned solely with their personal danger – there’s not a thought spared for the country as a whole. That takes a hero whose most axiomatic phrase is one of charity and makes him monstrously selfish. Robin never challenges John’s right to rule, never condemns Richard for being an absentee king, never seems to care about the common people except on a cursory level.
In his book British Comics: A Cultural History, James Chapman writes:
It would be no exaggeration to say that Morris had revolutionized the world of British juvenile papers. Eagle had proved that comics could indeed be ‘clean and exciting’: that they could promote a Christian world-view while at the same time satisfying their readers’ demands for adventure. With their conservative values and middle-class ethos, Eagle and its companion papers were wholly representative of British society of the 1950s.
But is that strictly true? The Adventures of Robin Hood TV series of the 1950s may have largely been written by blacklisted Americans, but it also delved into social issues that were hotly debated in postwar Britain. And at least for Swift’s Robin Hood comic, society as a whole barely bothers to show up.
Exciting parts of the legend are brought to life in this comic with impressive and vivid detail but can Makins and Bellamy’s Robin Hood truly be a great work if it leaves out so much?
Frank Bellamy's Robin Hood: The Complete Adventures by Clifford Makins and Frank Bellamy, edited by Steve Holland. London: Book Palace Books, 2008. (Holland's introduction and afterward were very helpful, including his identification of the Gilson source although I have greatly elaborated on the extent of the changes from novel to comic.)
British Comics: A Cultural History by James Chapman. London: Reakiton Books, 2011. (This was a good source of information for the cultural context surrounding The Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act and the publications of Marcus Morris, including Swift's more famous companion magazine for older boys -- Eagle, home of Dan Dare.)
"'Begone, Knave! Robbery is out of fashion hereabouts!' Robin Hood and the Comics Code" by Allen W. Wright in Bandit Territories: British Outlaw Traditions edited by Helen Phillips. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 2008. (My 1999 conference paper exploring American Robin Hood comic books of the 1950s, although at the time I had only read a few Amalgamated Press stories)
FRANK BELLAMY'S ROBIN HOOD: THE COMPLETE ADVENTURES by Frank Bellamy and Clifford Makins (edited by Steve Holland). Book Palace's 2008 compilation of Robin Hood and his Merry Men and Robin Hood and Maid Marian which originally appeared in two-page weekly installments in the Swift comic in 1956 and 1957.
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Text copyright, © Allen W. Wright, 2013.