The Bad Time Bed Time Books (BTBTBs) were the ultimate comic. They sum up all that is good in comics:
- STORY: A complete new story each week, so it was never predictable, and you never knew what to expect. And they were written by a comics genius, so each story had a really strong pace and direction.
- IDEAS: each book was based on a classic novel or TV series, so they were naturally packed with new ideas (new to kids like me anyway)
- VALUE: so much was packed into just eight half-sized pages
- FUN: full of harmless but mischievous fun and craziness, little side gags and general absurdity.
- RELATIONSHIP WITH READERS: The book had its own ‘editor,’ Leonard Rottingsocks, who personally chatted with the readers and invited letters each week. You really felt you were part of this and not just an onlooker. And the whole idea of the “bed time books for under-the-bedclothes readers” was wonderful. The idea was that you’d read the comic, then at night curl up under the bedclothes with a good book full of mischief and fun. For a seven year old like me this was worth its weight in gold.
That, friends, is what comics should be all about!
What are the Badtime Bedtime Books?
The BTBTBs were the middle four pages of Britain’s Monster Fun comic (1975 - 1976). The center pages could be pulled out and folded over to make an eight page “book,” and each was a parody based on a classic novel or TV series. Not every issue had one, as some issues had center page posters or other special features, but they were the highlight of the comic. They were also a lot of hard work to write and draw (compared with a regular story) and this helps to explain why they didn’t appear in every issue.
British comics in the 1970s were mostly humorous weeklies, with a larger page size than American counterparts, and a complete story covering one or two pages. Some stories were complete in half a page, like American Sunday strips. The BTBTB were the ultimate example of this trend, with a complete comic novel over eight mini pages. But thanks to TV the old style British comics were losing sales, and in the 1980s they all folded, with the exception of the Beano, Dandy, and the sci-fi comic 2000AD. The British comics of the 1970s have largely gone forever, and this web page is a shrine to the jewel in the crown of that lost empire.
The classic BTBTBs were the last mainstream comics work from Leo Baxendale, immortal British comics creator, inventor of the Bash Street Kids and numerous other timeless classics. He’s still at work creating comics, but this was his farewell to the regular weekly papers that used to be the heart and soul of British comicdom. And what a high point to end on!
Most of the Baxendale information in these pages comes from his autobiography, “A Very Funny Business”. Readers, buy that book! Then visit Baxendale’s web site and buy more of his stuff! Part of the reason why he left mainstream comics was that he felt betrayed by having people reprint his old stuff without him seeing a penny in royalties. So I feel a little bit guilty in making the web site (but the alternative is to have his best work completely forgotten, and that would be a bigger crime). So if I can steer people to buying his new work then I’ll sleep easier at nights.
How BTBTB started
Baxendale was arguably the number one British comics artist at the start of the 1970s, and was under pressure to create more and more work each week. Then in 1973 the British economy took a downturn and there was less work to be had. Baxendale took this review his career. He didn’t like producing rushed work, and wanted to spend more time on each strip, to create higher quality work, so this was a good time to change gear.
With less work, he could spend more time on each page, and the readers and editors loved it. In February 1975 he was approached by his editor about a new comic to be launched in the spring, called Monster Fun. They planned to give him the middle four pages to do with as he wished. Back in those days, comics were in black and white except for the covers and center pages, and the middle four pages were sometimes reserved for posters, so to have the middle four pages was quite the opportunity. Also, comic creators had much less power over their strips, so to be given complete freedom was something special. The editor suggested the title BTBTB and left the rest up to Baxendale.
At the time, Baxendale was drawing three other weekly strips: Sweeney Toddler, Clever Dick, and Snooper. Individual characters were always easier to draw than comics featuring a whole new multiple cast each week, but even so he needed to drop the other titles in order to focus his energies on the BTBTB. the other editors of course were heartbroken to see their favorite artist leaving their most popular strips, but I think history shows he did the right thing. He broke the news gently, and didn’t just drop all three at once, as this would have caused bad feeling that could jeopardize the BTBTB work.
BTBTB timeline and checklist
A note about the art and lettering
I’ve been looking through some of my old BTBTBs and noticed something interesting: the writing and pictures are sometimes very small, with lots of blank space. This gives a weird “poorly designed” look at first glance. Partly this is because some of the BTBTBs were rushed (see the checklist for details) but mostly it’s because of the lettering.
BTBTBs presented unique challenges to letterers. First, there’s much more detail than on regular pages. Second, it’s sideways. Third, it follows nonstandard panel layouts, with strange shaped boxes, tiny asides, sometimes upside down parts, and so on. You have to remember that most British comics at the time were highly standardized. And fourth, due to deadline pressures these things were probably lettered in a hurry. This was before the days of computers, remember. So, the letterer sometimes takes the simplest route: very tiny printing. This saves all the extra headache of trying to understand the (often crazy) logic of the story, But the result is a little weird. The artist leaves big gaps for the lettering, then the lettering itself is tiny, and requires incredible eyesight to read the finest print. And in order to maintain some kind of legibility, the letterer has chosen the most unappealing plain and serif font imaginable. So the comic sometimes has tiny details and lots of blank space, and unattractive rushed looking word balloons. Please don’t let this put you off. Remember the pressure the poor letterer was under and cut him some slack.
If these things were ever rereleased it would be relatively simple to remove the old lettering and replace it with something that makes better use of the available space, and creates something closer to the original vision of the writer and artist. Maybe one day.
How BTBTB ended
Baxendale wanted to create his best work all the time, but the weekly pressure of mainstream comics meant he always had to make compromises or miss deadlines. Plus he was becoming disillusioned with the industry, since it was always reprinting his old work but he never saw a penny in royalties. His dream was to spend a whole year making just one comic and selling it himself. But who would publish it? At that time he read an article in the Guardian about Colin Haycraft, the new manager at publishers Gerald Duckworth. here was a man who really understood comics. So Baxendale sent some copies of the BTBTBs to Haycraft
Rather than produce second rate work (Monster Fun comic came out weekly, but a good BTBTB took ten days to make) Baxendale left some of the stories to others. Those other BTBTBs were good, but not as great as his classics. It became a real headache for the editors, since nobody else could do what Baxendale did. Readers noticed that the quality was becoming patchy..
At this time, Baxendale was becoming more aware of the fan and independent comics world, a world where artists could live as human beings and not as machines crushed by deadlines who lost control of their work the moment it was mailed. He began to see a life beyond the rat race.
For all his working career, Baxendale had been working long hours under great pressure. He was a fan favorite, and everyone loved his work, but it was “work for hire” and he never got rich, and he never saw a penny in royalties. In October 1975, Duckworths signed a contract to publish Willy the Kid, and Baxendale would retain ownership of his work. the contract paid him in advance for a complete annual that had to be completed by the following May. As a freelance it was a simple matter to resign from IPC magazines (the publisher of Monster Fun) and work full time on Willy the Kid.
From that moment it was only a matter of time before the BTBTB and Monster Fun folded. There was normally a six week delay between finished art and the comic coping on sale, so the Baxendale BTBTB run ended in December 1975. Other artists and writers did their best in the next months, but readers noticed the decline in quality, and sales of Monster Fun declined. In those days, if an IPC comic lasted a year then it broke even, financially. And two years was a great success. Monster Fun lasted 18 months, and finally merged with Buster in October 1976. There were a few more annuals, and kids like me wondered why they never had BTBTBs, the best part of Monster Fun. And now we know.
Life after the BTBTB
As far as I know, the BTBTB canon was never reprinted. No doubt some were, since fans loved them and IPC tended to reprint all the good stuff again and again, but reprints are hard to find. This may be because BTBTBs presented their own problems.
- First, they were pullout pages designed for the color center spread, a part of a comic that was seldom available for reprints. And they didn’t work as well in back and white.
- Second, they were so memorable that readers would immediately notice that they were reprints. And the lettering style, the frame style, everything draws attention to itself as being something very different. It just doesn’t fit in anywhere except as a centerpiece. But the whole point of a reprint is to fill up space in a generic way. Britain, until recently, had no tradition of openly reprinting classics.
- Third, the editorials by Leonard Rottingsocks assumed a familiarity with readers and referred to Monster Fun and the letters page so that entire section would need to be redrawn or rewritten.
- Fourth, the pages are printed sideways, and need to be removed from the comic, cut out and reassembled to make sense. In a regular comic readers can get used to this, but as an occasional reprint it can be confusing. This is a serious matter when the entire British humor comic instrustry was in decline and readers just didn’t care for them any more. By the 1990s the classic stories were largely published in reprint anthologies like “Funny Fortnightly.” Casual readers just didn’t have the dedication that these strips demanded. And neither did the editors, apparently. I have a “Funny Fortnightly” hardback annual where even the title is misspelled.
- Fifth, like all comedy it was largely of its time. The BTBTBs were full of 1960s and 1970s style humor and references to 1960s and 1970s pop culture. new readers just wouldn’t find them as funny. (Except very cultured and intelligent readers like YOU, of course.)
I have often thought that the BTBTBs, with their small page size, would be perfect for a paperbacked anthology, where the entire run could be published as a single book. Personally I would buy at least ten copies. But until then, this web site (and buying Monster Fun comics on eBay) is the best we can do.