Part II. Forms and genres
28. Popular literature
Comics, dime novels, pulps and Penny Dreadfuls
British children’s comics: 150 years of fun and thrills
The familiar British weekly comic magazine of today, usually comprising some thirty-two pages of strip cartoons, most in colour, some in black and white, can trace its ancestry back to an experiment produced for Christmas 1874, and forty years further back to a four-page annual edition dated 1831. And the regular comic characters can trace themselves back to a one-off experimental strip designed with no more ambition than to fill a page in a weekly humour magazine published in the summer of 1867. Both these casual (at the time) events took place long enough ago to secure Britain’s claim as founder of the feast of fun that fills the world with laughter.
To take these two events in chronological order, first came the vehicle. Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, a weekly which began on 3 March 1822, introduced a regular pictorial feature called ‘The Gallery of Comicalities’ in 1827. This series of caricatures, illustrated jokes and humorous engravings was contributed by such favourite contemporary cartoonists as George Cruikshank, Robert Seymour and Kenny Meadows. The pictures were so popular that thirty-four of these cartoons were gathered together and reprinted as a full page of pictures on Sunday 2 January 1831: the first cartoon page in British newspaper history. This was so successful - and economical! - that a further fifty-four cartoons were reprinted in the edition dated 12 March 1831, with the interesting editorial note that the engravings ‘cost the proprietors two hundred and seventy guineas’. If true, this would imply that the average fee paid per picture was five guineas, a good deal higher than the fee a comic artist would receive half a century later, when two shillings would be considered a good price per panel!
An enterprising publisher named George Goodyer now enlarged on Bell’s idea and, assembling four broadsheet pages from back numbers of Bell’s weekly, published them as a one-shot entitled The Gallery of 140 Comicalities on 24 June 1831. Goodyer charged the steep price of threepence for this bumper budget of cartoons, editorially reckoning that the total cost to him was £735. His profits can be estimated by the mathematically minded, as we know his total sales to have been 178,000 copies. Another publisher, William Clement Jr, saw even more potential in this pictorial format, and turned The Gallery of Comicalities into an annual series, running it from Part II (1832) to Part VII (1841). This regular cartoon paper becomes a good contender for the title of the first comic, for among the myriad cartoons can be found primitive strips, tiny two-picture episodes usually in the form of cartooned comparisons or contrasts. Indeed, in Bell’s first full-page ‘Gallery of Comicalities’ can be found a captionless two-picture strip entitled ‘Before and After the Election’, reprinted from an issue of Life in London of 1830.
Bell’s weekly and its reprints represent the mainstream of popular journalism, but at the same time the wealthier end of the market purchased caricature prints, plain or hand-coloured, and issued by the print houses in limited editions.
The original idea of using the lithographic printing system to issue a regular cartoon magazine rather than single sheets of pictures seems to have been born in Scotland. Number 1 of Glasgow Looking Glass, dated 23 July 1825, was issued and most probably illustrated by John Watson of the Lithographic Press Office, 189 George Street: ‘Price Common Impression, One Shilling, Best Ditto, 1s 6d’. It even included an eight-picture serial strip entitled ‘History of a Coat, Part 1’. This monthly was followed by Northern Looking Glass, a four-page pictorial drawn by William Heath, who later went to London to draw The Looking Glass for Thomas McLean, the famous print publisher of 26 Haymarket. Heath drew the first seven issues (January-July 1830), after which Robert Seymour was given the credit. The Looking Glass was ‘designed and drawn on stone’.
The father of what most students of the comic would recognise as true British comic art was C. J. Grant. He drew cartoons in the Thomas-Hood style of pictorial pun, but with a common touch: for example, the phrase ‘making a deep impression’ is illustrated by a slapstick scene showing a top-hatted toff flopping into a puddle of mud. ‘Every Man to His Post’ shows a bottle-brandishing drunk clutching a horse-hitching post. William Makepeace Thackeray, writing about Grant, saw his drawings as ‘outrageous caricatures’ with ‘squinting eyes, wooden legs, and pimpled noses forming the chief points of fun’. They were beneath that great literary gentleman, but that was, and is, their point. In Grant’s lively London line can be seen the start of an art appealing to, and belonging to, the working and lower class. Grant’s ‘pimpled noses’ are archetypes for Ally Sloper’s.
Grant described himself as ‘A.A.E.’ which stood for ‘Author, Artist, Editor’ on the byline of a fortnightly broadside which he drew from 1 January 1834. Every Body’s Album and Caricature Magazine, published by the lithographic printer J. Kendrick of 54 Leicester Square, London, had a good run, and in its welter of caricatural contents, can be found a comic strip with speech balloons, ‘Adventures of the Buggins’s’, a short serial strip that ran from number 36 to number 37 (July 1835).
The first comic paper to match all the features of the modern comic (low price, regular weekly publication, mass circulation via newsagents, editorial and artistic content) was called Funny Folks (12 December 1874). Like the other essential of the comic, the regularly appearing character, the first comic evolved by accident. James Henderson, publisher of The Weekly Budget, a family magazine, designed The Funny Folks Budget as a pull-out supplement to his Grand Christmas Number. It was to be an all-cartoon section and was advertised as a special one-off edition. However, so striking was it in its large tabloid format, and so intriguing to the readers of The Weekly Budget readers, that it was immediately turned into a separate publication in its own right. Curiously, although it laid down a formula clung to by British comics for the next seventy-five years (eight pages, four of cartoons and four of text, in tabloid newspaper size), Funny Folks never developed a continuing hero. The few strips it ran were, like the cartoons which dominated its content, topical, even political, following the promise of the magazine’s subtitle: ‘The Comic Companion to the Newspaper’. Thus we see the first important point a student of the comic should always remember, that originally comics were intended as light entertainment for the adult reader, and not for children.
And so we come to our second essential to the comic, the continuing cartoon character. The first true comic-strip hero (after one or two minor false starts) starred in a full-page cartoon episode entitled ‘Some of the Mysteries of Loan and Discount’. He was created by the astoundingly talented Charles Henry Ross, a prolific author of serial stories, novels and plays, a journalist, an editor, an actor and a cartoonist; and his name was ‘Ally Sloper’. Ally was supposed to have been an abbreviation of Alexander, but in fact the name was designed as a pun, a favourite form of verbal humour of the period. Being forever workshy and penniless, Ally Sloper was one who ‘sloped’ up the ‘alley’ - that is to say, he slipped around the corner with great alacrity whenever the landlord came to collect his rent!
Charles Ross was already drawing a regular comic-strip page in the weekly joke magazine Judy, which had been founded in 1867 as a rival to the successful humorous journal Punch (1841). Having now hit by sheer chance on a character who would stand repetition, Ross reintroduced Ally Sloper in his subsequent contributions to Judy, probably to save himself the trouble of continually creating new comic heroes. Sloper took the public’s fancy as his efforts to avoid hard work and make a comfortable living became ever more outrageous. An annual cartoon publication, a burlesque almanac entitled Ally Sloper’s Comic Kalendar, was introduced from December 1873, followed by a mid-year special, Ally Sloper’s Summer Number (1880). Eventually Ross sold his character to the famous Victorian engravers and publishers the Dalziel Brothers, and a complete weekly comic was built around the old reprobate: Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday from 3 May 1884.
Ross’s original image of Sloper, crude but full of action, was lost when the artwork for his adventures was taken over by W. G. Baxter. This brilliant comic draughtsman established the vast Sloper family, including the sexy chorus girl Tootsie Sloper who ran the fashion features, depicting them in the bumper Christmas Holiday issues in huge centre-spreads of yuletide activities. Unhappily Baxter died far too young, suffering, it is said, from the curse of drink that so befuddled his cartoon hero and, for the remainder of his long comic career, Sloper was drawn, in the Baxter image, by W. F. Thomas.
Sloper’s comic life in his own weekly ran for some forty years. In addition he was the first strip character to be merchandised, and can be found to this day in such venerable collectibles as china busts (with removable top hats!), ashtrays, a pocket watch, a glass sauce-bottle and a brass doorstop. It was the last of these antiques that became the model for the annual (but now defunct) Ally Sloper Award, instituted in 1976 as a mark of appreciation towards veteran comic artists. Although Sloper died officially in 1923, he has refused to lie down, being revived by two comic publishers in 1948, and again as the title for the first British comic magazine for adults (1976).
The true boom in comic weeklies began on 17 May 1890 when an enterprising young publisher named Alfred Harmsworth produced number 1 of Comic Cuts. Harmsworth modelled his weekly paper so closely on James Henderson’s Funny Folks that he even filled it with cartoons and strips that had already been published in the past by Henderson! Harmsworth himself had been an editorial employee of Henderson, and well knew that most of his employer’s cartoons were reprinted from back numbers of the American comic weeklies Judge, Life and Puck. Henderson, however, had a perfect right to do this, as he had financial arrangements with the American publishers; Harmsworth had not. In consequence it was not long before Harmsworth was advertising in Comic Cuts for British cartoonists to contribute to his new paper. Henderson had moved in with a writ! Thus, through Harmsworth’s undoubted perfidy, a brand new market for British cartoonists was opened up. Contributions poured in and were used to fill the four illustrated pages of the eight-page Comic Cuts, plus the additional pages of Illustrated Chips. The runaway success of Harmsworth’s new comic had virtually forced him to produce a companion comic, and Illustrated Chips was launched on 26 July 1890. Both papers succeeded beyond Harmsworth’s expectations, not because of the quality of their cartoons (or indeed of their paper itself, which was of the lowest quality and dyed pink), but because both papers cost exactly half the price of his rival Henderson’s comics: Harmsworth sold his comics for a halfpenny each, instead of one penny!
The halfpenny-comic boom continued through to the new century, and through it many new cartoonists were discovered. None was greater than a youthful Nottingham lithographer named Tom Browne (1870-1910). Browne scorned the closely cross-hatched style of cartooning so prevalent in the old-established humorous weeklies such as Punch, and favoured the new, simple style popularised by Phil May. Applying this formula of linework plus solid blacks to strip art, Browne began freelancing the occasional comic strip to such London weeklies as Scraps: his first ever, entitled ‘He Knew How To Do It’, appeared in the issue of 27 April 1890. A prophetic title: Tom Browne certainly ‘knew how to do it’, and soon abandoned lithography in Nottingham for a studio in Blackheath, London, from whence he turned out as many as five different front-page series a week, plus posters, postcards, advertising art, illustrations and watercolour paintings. His most popular and famous characters in comics were Weary Willie and Tired Tim, who first appeared as casual tramp heroes in a one-off strip described as Weary Waddles and Tired Timmy in Chips for 16 May 1896. Immediately popular with editors and readers alike, these classic comic heroes, one short and fat, the other tall and thin, remained on page one of Chips through the comic’s entire life, right to the final edition on 12 September 1953. This fifty-eight-year run is something of a record, but one which Tom Browne did not live to see. He died in 1910, some five years after giving up his characters and, indeed, comic work altogether. But he had lived long enough to know that his bold black-and- white style of art, and his working-class type of hero, plus his slapstick, action-packed comedy, had set the style, the standard, and indeed the look of British comic art, and his influence persisted for half a century.
Incidentally, it is a sad sidelight on British comic history that the cartoonist who drew Weary Willie and Tired Tim from 1907 to their very last appearance was never once permitted to sign his work. His name was Percy Cocking, and he continued the classic Tom-Browne style of comic drawing to the very end.
Harmsworth’s huge financial success led to many smaller publishers entering the comic market, each with one or more titles, and all modelled on the originals. They invariably featured tramp double-acts on their front pages, virtually carbon copies of Tom Browne’s Willie and Tim. Indeed, the more prosperous publishers hired Browne to create these front-page characters for them, such as C. Arthur Pearson: Airy Alf and Bouncing Billy appeared on number 1 of The Big Budget (19 June 1897), a huge penny comic divided into three pull-out parts of eight pages each.
At this time all British comics were being published for an adult market: even Harmsworth’s price of one halfpenny was a sum beyond the pocket of the average working-class child. Thus all the early comic heroes are adult, and all the themes of their adventures are adult - tramps stealing from shopkeepers and ending up in prison, for example. The first comic paper to feature children as heroes was Larks, published as a halfpenny comic by the proprietors of Ally Sloper’sHalf Holiday (one penny). The Balls Pond Road Banditti was a gang of juvenile delinquents whose weekly adventures took them around such landmarks of Victorian London as the British Museum and the Albert Memorial. They were drawn on the front page by Gordon Fraser, an artist whose name still graces a greetings-card publisher. The Banditti can be considered the cartoon ancestors of the Beano's gang of destructive schoolboys, the Bash Street Kids. Although obviously popular with young readers, it would be some years before British comics became the sole property of children. Even then, the heroes of the strips remained predominantly adult, with just the occasional strip concerning itself with the antics of schoolboys and schoolgirls.
The first coloured comics were simply printed in black ink on coloured paper. Chips, for example, was almost always printed on pink paper and, despite a brief flirtation with red ink on white paper, reverted in the final decade of its existence to its traditional form. The first British comic to be printed in full colour was the special autumn issue of Comic Cuts, published 12 September 1896. This brave failure, an enterprise of Alfred Harmsworth in answer to the coloured comic supplements which were being published as part of the New York Sunday newspapers, failed mainly because the printing costs raised the price of a coloured edition from a halfpenny to one penny. However, Harmsworth continued to experiment spasmodically with special coloured editions of his several weekly comics, but it would be his business rivals, the relatively small firm of Trapps and Holmes, who would publish the first regular weekly comic printed in full colour. Called, appropriately, The Coloured Comic, it appeared on 21 May 1898 with the usual tramp partnership on the front - Frog Faced Ferdinand and Watty Wool Whiskers - but after about a year was reduced to being printed black on coloured paper, thus continuing to justify its title, to the publishers at least!
Alfred Harmsworth was, however, the first to publish a really successful coloured comic weekly, launching Puck, a twelve-page penny comic, on 30 July 1904, ‘To gladden your eye on bright wings of colour and fancy’. But by the end of the year the comic had completely changed in character, and with it the whole nature and concept of the British comic. Puck begins as a weekly magazine for adults, modelled closely on the American Sunday supplements. Even its name was stolen from the American humorous weekly, while many of its characters in the comic strips are also stolen. There was The Newlyweds, but by a British artist, not George McManus. There was Buster Brown complete with dog and resolutions, redrawn as Scorcher Smith. Some weeks there was a full-page cover cartoon, other weeks a decorative drawing of a lovely lady. But the key to the comic was contained in ‘Puck Junior’, a section within the comic intended for the younger members of the family. This quickly took over the entire twelve-page comic (except for some of the serialised fiction pages). Johnny Jones and the Casey Court Kids (guest stars from Harmsworth’s well-established Chips) took over the front page, and by Christmas 1904 the whole pictorial content of Puck was geared to children.
And so the first comic weekly designed for children was evolved. It became such a success that almost all comic papers published in Great Britain from then on have been designed for the juvenile market. The special appeal remained for adults - they bought the comic for their children, children still seldom being able to afford the necessary penny. Thus a new style of comic was born, one which appealed to the adult eye as a well-drawn, well-designed, well-printed paper which would have nothing objectionable in its contents for children to see, a style of comic quite separate from the halfpenny knockabouts of Chips and its companions, which would remain working class, despite the lowering of the age of their readership, for their entire lives.
James Henderson, Harmsworth’s old employer and now business rival, was the next publisher to attempt a coloured comic. Taking inspiration from Harmsworth’s methods, he succeeded in printing a full-colour comic at half Puck’s price - one halfpenny! This was Lot-O-Fun, which started on 17 March 1906 and ran for a total of 1,196 weekly issues, most of them featuring George Davey’s clever fantasy strip ‘Dreamy Daniel’, about a tramp whose weekly dreams took him to the Wild West with Buffalo Bill, and on adventures with many other contemporary heroes, real and imaginary. Lot-0-Fun finally closed when Harmsworth, now trading as the Amalgamated Press, bought Henderson out and killed off all his publications, one by one. This shameful practice would be repeated throughout the history of British comics, first with the disappearance of the Trapps and Holmes comics, then with the independent Target Comics of Bath in the 1930s, the J. B. Alien Comet and Sun in the 1940s, and the Hulton Press comics, Eagle and Girl, in the 1950s.
British comics were now separated into two distinct classes, the ‘penny blacks’ and the ‘tuppenny coloureds’. The ‘black’ comics, distinguished by being printed on different coloured newsprint, were aimed at the working-class market - the child at the council school - while the coloureds concentrated on the younger child of middle-class families. The age-range of the comics was considerable. Chick’s Own (25 September 1920) catered specifically for the very young child just learning to read. All its words were hyphenated into syllables. Next came The Rainbow (14 February 1914) for the school beginners aged five to seven, followed by Sparkler (20 October 1934) for the eight-year-olds and upwards. Of the many titles covering these age groups Rainbow is the most important, and was the most successful, being the pioneer ‘nursery comic’, as the group came to be called. It was also the first British comic to sell one million copies every week, including one copy which was delivered to Buckingham Palace tucked inside the King’s Times! This enabled the editor to emblazon his comic with the headline ‘The Paper for Home and Palace!’
The front-page stars of Rainbow were the Bruin Boys, a gang of anthropomorphic animals who lived at Mrs Bruin’s Boarding School, and the star of the gang was Tiger Tim. Tim and his chums had been created as early as 1904 for the Daily Mirror, then transferred to The Monthly Playbox (November 1904), the first coloured comic supplement to a magazine, the sumptuous shilling monthly The World and His Wife. This section continued to be given away until May 1910, when it transferred to a fortnightly juvenile educational magazine, The New Children’s Encyclopedia, to afford much-needed comic relief. The enormous popularity of Tiger Tim and the (then) Hippo Boys encouraged the editor of the newly conceived comic Rainbow to feature them on his front page in full colour. Their popularity was so huge that a second comic, Tiger Tim’s Weekly (31 January 1920), was created, but this was still not enough. Finally a weekly comic just for girls was designed, using the old Playbox title, and from 14 February 1925 the hitherto unsuspected twin sisters of Tiger Tim and Company, Tiger Tilly and the Hippo Girls, cut their comic capers.
Once again the darker side of British comic publication is cast across the comedy. None of this immense commercial success benefited Julius Stafford Baker (1869-1961), the cartoonist who created the characters. (He also created Casey Court, the large panel of slum-kid comedy that appeared in Chips from 1902 to the final issue - again without continued benefit to his income.) Baker was dismissed from the Rainbow front page after only a few issues, for being ‘too American’ in style. Tiger Tim was taken over by Herbert S. Foxwell (1890-1943), who redesigned the character and related the style of drawing more to the traditions of British children’s book illustration - amusing but decorative. Foxwell continued the cover strips to the mid-1930s, but was then lured away with greatly increased money to the Daily Mail to draw their weekly comic supplement starring their long-established children’s strip hero, Teddy Tail (a humanised mouse). Tiger Tim and his pals are, incidentally, the oldest continuing heroes in British comics: they continued to appear in the nursery comic Jack and Jill and celebrated their eightieth birthday in 1984.
The 1930s were the Golden Age of British comics and there was even a handsome black-and-orange penny comic called Golden, to prove it. The two styles of comic art, nursery and slapstick, had developed to perfection, building on the pioneering work of Tom Browne, Stafford Baker and others. Of all the many weeklies produced during the decade, the finest has to be Happy Days (1 October 1938), a nursery-plus comic printed in full-colour photogravure showcasing the two finest Golden Age artists in comics, Roy Wilson (1900-65) and Reg Perrott (1916-48?). Wilson had started his comic career as assistant to the slapstick artist Don Newhouse, but had speedily overtaken his tutor on such excellent penny comic series as ‘Pitch and Toss’, a fat-and-thin pair of silly sailors, and ‘Basil and Bert’, a monocled secret service agent and his lower-class assistant. Wilson loved to draw funny animals, and his characters ‘Chimpo’s Circus’ on the ever-varied covers of Happy Days are his comedy masterpieces. The editor thought so much of this artwork that Wilson was actually allowed to sign his name!
Happy Days was the Amalgamated Press’s answer to Mickey Mouse Weekly, the first full-colour photogravure comic which started on 8 February 1936. It was published by the hitherto exclusively adult-magazine publisher Odhams Press, in collaboration with the Walt Disney organisation. Many of the interior strips were American-originated Sunday and daily strips, but the wonderful full-tabloid cover pictures featuring Mickey and his Gang were painted by Wilfred Haughton, who had been the first artist in England to draw the movie mouse for merchandising. Every year from 1931 to the mid-1940s he single- handedly drew the 128-page Mickey Mouse Annual. These are collectors’ items today, and it is hard to believe that Haughton was actually discharged from the comic for refusing to bring his characterisations of Mickey and friends into line with the modernised style of the Disney Studio. Also working on the pages produced in England for Mickey Mouse Weekly was Reg Perrott, a young comics artist who favoured adventure strips and serials. His historical adventure, ‘Road to Rome’, is a masterpiece in line and wash, followed by his first full-colour serial, the western ‘White Cloud’. Moving to the Amalgamated Press comic Happy Days, Perrott drew another great colour serial, ‘Sons of the Sword’, in which cinemascopic panels were used for the first time. Perrott’s early death, not long after his demobilisation from the Royal Air Force, robbed British comics of their finest adventure- strip artist.
As the 1930s closed, a new publisher entered the comic market, and immediately became the most successful of them all. This was the Scottish publisher, D. C. Thomson of Dundee. Thomson had been issuing very successful boys’ story papers (Adventure, Wizard, etc.) since the 1920s and now entered comics for the first time with The Dandy (3 December 1937), produced in their story-paper format: twenty-eight pages, halftabloid size, with a full-colour front page. It was an instant success, and its two leading strip stars, Korky the Cat on the cover and Desperate Dan the tough cowboy inside, are still running today. Their original artists, James Crichton and Dudley D. Watkins (1907-69), are both long dead, but their characters and drawing styles live on. Watkins was only eighteen when he was hired as a staff artist by Thomson, who lured him to Dundee from his native Nottingham, and he would stay with the Scots firm all his life, dying in mid-strip at his drawing-board. Towards the end of his career he became the only Thomson artist allowed to sign his artwork.
The Beano, a companion comic to The Dandy, was introduced on 30 July 1939, and included stories told purely in pictures - Thomson’s had discarded the traditional British style of printed captions underneath every panel (trade term: ‘the libretto’). (The Amalgamated Press continued to support their strips with libretti until well after the Second World War.) Today the captionless strip is standard, improving the visual drama of the strip but removing much of the traditional reading matter of the comic. D. C. Thomson were also the first to use the American term ‘comics’ to describe their strips (‘All Your Favourite Comics Inside!’), while the Amalgamated Press clung to the word ‘comic’ (for example, The Knock-Out Comic) as descriptive of the whole publication. Finally they too bent to Americanisation with the publication of their Cowboy Comics in May 1950. The Beano, like its partner, continues to be published to this day, and is Britain’s top-selling comic. Of its original heroes, only Lord Snooty and his Pals - another Dudley Watkins creation - survive. Dropped by the comic in 1992, Snooty was swiftly snapped up by the Sunday Times comic supplement.
The Amalgamated Press quickly produced rivals to the Scottish comics, similar in format but differing in character. Radio Fun (15 October 1938) depicted famous BBC stars in clever caricature adventures by Roy Wilson and others, and was modelled on the successful pioneer comic in this genre, Film Fun, which had been running since 17 January 1920. Knockout (4 March 1939) also featured famous heroes, but fictional ones, adapting the story-paper characters Sexton Blake, a detective whose origins go back to the 1890s, and Billy Bunter, the fat schoolboy who first appeared in The Magnet in 1908. The look of the comic, however, was designed by Hugh McNeill (1910-79), a brilliant and highly personal humorous artist. His slightly zany, very funny characters, Our Ernie, Mrs Entwhistle’s Little Lad and Deed-a-Day Danny, were the real stars of the comic. Knockout artists (including myself) were encouraged to model their comic style on McNeill.
The years of the Second World War were drab ones for the comics. A national paper shortage helped kill off many of the less successful titles; others suffered from reduced content (down to twelve pages from twenty-eight) and frequency (down from weekly to fortnightly). But the blacked-out 1940s also saw the birth of the British comic book. Gerald G. Swan, a market salesman no longer able to import American comic books, turned himself into a publisher and issued his own. New Funnies (January 1940) was the first, sixty-four pages for sixpence, but, unlike the American comics, only the cover was in colour. Further titles followed (War Comics, Thrill Comics) and even a nursery comic complete with hyphens, Kiddy Fun. Many other small publishers flourished during the war, including A. Soloway (Comic Capers, All Star), Martin and Reid (Jolly Chuckles, Jolly Western) and the Philipp Marx Group (The New Comics, The Miniature Comic). Of these minor publishers soon L. Miller and Son would emerge as the most prolific and longest lived. This firm began by reprinting American comic books from Fawcett Publications. When their best-seller, Captain Marvel Adventures, had to be discontinued as a consequence of the lawsuit between Fawcett and National-D. C. Comics (who claimed that Captain Marvel plagiarised their Superman), Miller converted his comic to an all-British superhero, Marvelman (6 February 1954). Billy Batson became Micky Moran, his magic cry changed from ‘Shazam!’ to ‘Kimota!’ (more or less the word ‘Atomic’ spelled backwards!). Marvelman caught on immediately with comic-hungry children, and was soon joined by Young Marvelman, replacing Captain Marvel Junior, and The Marvelman Family, in which Kid Marvelman replaced Mary Marvel, the All-American superheroine. Don Lawrence, whose artwork rapidly became among the best in British comics, began his career in the Marvelman comics.
The 1950s began superbly with Eagle, launched on 14 April 1950. This large-format comic in full-colour photogravure had been designed by a cleric, the Reverend Marcus Morris, and drawn to his specifications by a failed pilot with his head in the stars, art student Frank Hampson. Hulton Press, publishers of the best-selling weekly magazine Picture Post, took it on and Eagle rapidly flew to become top comic in the country. Its circulation soon touched the magic million mark once achieved by the pre-war Rainbow. ‘Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future’ was the leading strip, and Hampson quickly turned this science-fiction adventure into a true saga, his artwork improving week by week. Young readers loved the serial for its apparent accuracy, achieved by the unprecedented idea of Hampson’s to build scale models of Dare’s spacecraft, the futuristic cities of Mars, and so on, so that these would appear authentic from all angles when drawn into the comic. The success of Eagle against the hide-bound traditions of the Amalgamated Press and D. C. Thomson comics was to a great extent due to the fact that the entire art and editorial staff of the comic had never worked in either comics or strip cartoons before.
Frank Hampson and his many followers (Frank Bellamy, John Burns, Ron Embleton) changed the face of the British adventure strip. Meanwhile over in the funnies this was being done by a new cartoonist, Leo Baxendale. His strips for Beano, including ‘The Bash Street Kids’ and ‘Little Plum’, stood out against the standard and somewhat mechanical slapstick comic art in a way that was both new and very funny. (Beano had finally gone into 100 per cent picture format on 5 March 1955.) Baxendale was lured away from Thomson’s by Odhams Press to create the characters and do much of the drawing for a new comic, Wham (20 June 1964). His crazy style can still be seen in many modern British comics, although he himself has not drawn for them for many years. After producing an unsuccessful annual of his own (Willie the Kid), Baxendale drew for newspapers and Dutch comics, and gathered evidence for a daring lawsuit against his former publishers to claim royalties on his many characters which continued to perform (depicted by lesser pens), without benefit to him as creator. Finally settling out of court, Baxendale was more fortunate than Frank Hampson, who died in near poverty despite the fact that his Dan Dare continued to be a comic star when Eagle was revived in the 1980s.
In the 1990s British comics were still published in many titles, but were usually tied in some way with television or video games and toys. Old favourites (Beano, Dandy) continued, while others (Victor, Beezer) vanished. 2000 AD (26 February 1977) has succeeded as a cult comic for older readers through the hideous exploits of its ultra-violent anti-hero, Judge Dredd, and is a science-fiction variation of Britain’s most violent comic, Action (14 February 1976), notorious as the only children’s comic ever to be banned.
The surprise here was that Action was published by Fleetway/IPC, the company that had inherited the fun factory created by Alfred Harmsworth. An outcry in the tabloid newspapers led to television exposure, and finally refusal by W. H. Smith, the nation’s largest wholesaler, to handle the comic. The last issue to be printed (number 37) was not released and has become something of a collector’s item. Two months later the publisher issued the first of a ‘new series’ of Action, but it failed to please the ‘tough-kid’ market it had been created for, and, like its ancestor, it too was wound up; it was incorporated with the war comic Battle as Battle Action.
Comics began in Britain as picture publications for adults, and it is perhaps fitting that they should now have come full circle after some eighty years as children’s publications. Action’s error was in depicting violence for a juvenile market. 2000 AD, modelled on what had been successful in Action, and what teenagers enjoyed in the cinema - the new breed of science fiction - gradually became the best-produced comic in the country, always raising its standards of script-writing, artwork, colour printing and paper. American editions were produced, and a film starring Judge Dredd released in 1995. Many other sci-fi-plus-violence followed 2000 AD: Tank Girl added sex to violence successfully, and W. H. Smith gave way to commercial pressure.
The British adult comic had a rebirth in the late 1960s under the influence of the American ‘underground’ comic which had been pioneered by cartoonists like Robert Crumb with his comic/erotic Zap Comics. These were reprinted in Britain and much emulated in many one-off or short-run comics, drawn and published by amateurs in London and the provinces. The best and longest-lasting of these local cartoonists is Hunt Emerson from Birmingham, who began with his Large Cow Comix (1974), and became an internationally admired creator. His style owes much to George Herriman and his vintage American page ‘Krazy Kat’, but Emerson’s style and sense of humour are now all his own (perhaps spoiled for some by his obsession with obscenity).
The most successful comic ever published in Britain is Viz (December 1979), which began as a very small circulation amateur comic and now sells over 1,000,000 copies bimonthly. Some of its characters, such as The Fat Slags, have been animated, shown on television and released on video. Its style is a mixture of American ‘underground’ and the British Beano, and if the humour of its young artists is not ‘adult’ in the true sense of the word, it is definitely highly unsuitable for children!