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Friday, 15 April 2011
THE MYSTERY OF THE MISSING WILLY...
Willy sets out on his maiden voyage
I was wandering through my local JOHN MENZIES (now WH SMITH'S) one Winter's day back in 1976, when I spied a big square table laden with a selection of annuals. Prominent among them was one I hadn't seen before, although the art style was familiar to me. "Only £1?", thought me - "I'm having that!" And thus was I introduced to legendary British cartoonist LEO BAXENDALE's latest comic creation - WILLY The KID.
The book was laugh-out-loud funny - and an absolute steal at a measly quid. I couldn't have been the only one suddenly wishing their life away 'til next year's annual. So impressed was I with the madcap masterpiece, I bought copies for friends - who also loved the lunatic antics of the turnip-headed Willy. And that's no mere hyperbole: "...when I created the first Willy book... my inspiration in drawing Willy was a turnip." (Leo Baxendale, 1995.)
Ooer! He's not even out of the harbour yet
According to the 1st annual, there was going to be a new one every year, and each book would be kept in print forever. When the 2nd annual came out in 1977, I snapped it up and gleefully looked forward to the next one in what was going to be a yearly succession of Willy the Kid publications for all eternity. I was deliriously happy. Experience has long-since taught me that nothing is ever that easy and that the fates often conspire against us, but back then I was still an optimist.
In 1978 I bought Leo's autobiography, A VERY FUNNY BUSINESS, but, apart from a picture on the back cover, I simply couldn't find a copy of the 3rd annual anywhere. (Many years later, a dealer told me not to waste my time looking for it as it had never been printed. That would certainly explain why I couldn't find a copy at the time.) I never saw a Willy the Kid Annual again - he had simply vanished from the face of the earth without even saying goodbye.
A lovely colouring job from Leo
Sometime later, in the mid-'90s, I ordered some books from Leo and took the opportunity to ask him about the annual, and he generously took the time to reply and explain what had happened with it. Here's Leo in his own words from his November '95 response: "Yes, the third... book was published, in September1978, simultaneously with... 'A Very Funny Business'. But because writing the auto-biography took 4 months of my time in the summer of 1977, I was that much late in starting... the third Willy the Kid book, and as a result... it missed the annual distribution set-up, and was published as a 'posh' book with a wrap-around loose cover, at £2.50 (by contrast with the first and second Willy books, which were £1 each)
" - what's more, the print orders for Willy Books 1 and 2 were in both cases circa around 150,000, and they were sold along with the other annuals (Beano annual and whatnot), but the print order for the third Willy book, being a 'posh' book, had a print order of 10,000, and was tucked away in bookshops, instead of being sold alongside annuals."
At least it's not under his bed
So there you have it from Leo himself - the book was published - and don't let any dealer ever tell you different. Bax then went on to say the following: "So, alas, alas... lots of dedicated readers couldn't find it, and in many cases have spent the rest of their lives looking for it (funnily enough, the day before I received your order, I'd had an order for prints and books from a young man in Catford in London, with a covering letter telling me jubilantly that only the previous week, he had finally found a copy of the elusive Willy the Kid Book 3 in a junk shop in Wales.) So never give up hope."
I eventually managed to track down a copy of the book on the Internet in 2009. It may have taken me 31 years, but I can now finally boast a complete set of 1970s Willy the Kid Annuals. They're well-worth having, although the third book has fewer pages than its two predecessors. Incidentally, the 'ripples' in the accompanying photographs of Book 3 are on the protective clear sleeve, not the dustjacket itself. I wasn't going to risk damaging it by removing it to scan.
Never printed? Well, what's this then?
If you're wondering why the annuals didn't continue, the matter is touched on in Leo's book, The BEANO ROOM & Other Places, doubtless available from ebay and second-hand booksellers. Why not track down a copy today?
Incidentally, several letters and notes which Leo sent to me over the years appear on various posts on the blog, so if you want to see into the mind of the great man, use the search box to locate them, by simply typing in Leo Baxendale.