GREAT BRITISH COMICS
A Review By: The Comics Journal
Kent Worcester is an Associate Professor of Political Science and International Studies at Marymount Manhattan College. His books include C.L.R. James: A Political Biography (1996), The Social Science Research Council: 1923-1998 (2001), and Arguing Comics: Literary Masters on a Popular Medium (2004), which he coedited with the Canadian scholar Jeet Heer. He is a regular contributor to The Comics Journal.
Great British Comics has the same look and feel as Paul Gravett’s Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life, which was published in 2005. But rather than deconstructing individual comic book pages, this coauthored volume surveys the rich and underappreciated heritage of British cartooning. It encompasses not only newspaper strips, comic books, and graphic novels, but also tabloid anthologies, picture libraries, and Christmas annuals. The book’s copious illustrations showcase cover art, interior pages, original sketches, newsagents’ posters, rare toys, and charming photos of kids reading long-forgotten comics like Beezer and Seek and Strike. Anyone with a soft spot for English popular culture is likely to find this book utterly absorbing. The authors have packed a cornucopia of eccentricity into a relatively small number of high-gloss pages.
Gravett and Stanbury have little to say about the ancestors of modern English cartooning, from William Hogarth and George Cruikshank to James Gillray and Punch. They are primarily concerned with commercial visual entertainment from the past century or so. While we often talk about comics culture, broadly understood, in such national contexts as France, Japan, and the United States, we tend to overlook or take for granted the extent to which cartooning is part of everyday life in the different mini-countries of the United Kingdom. This book provides a useful corrective to the unspoken assumption that cartooning in England and its neighbors consists of childish whimsy or lesser imitations of American material.
By ranging across formats, genres, and historical eras, the authors make it clear just how varied and ubiquitous comics have been in twentieth century British society and culture. They open the book with a useful timeline that highlights the rise and fall of comics publications, from Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday (1884-1929) to Judge Dredd Megazine (1992-present). The timeline includes information on successive monarchies, prime ministers, and public events. If you are interested in, say, which comics periodicals were launched during the reign of George V (1910-1936), this is your guide. For most North American comics fans, the very titles of the magazines listed are likely to evoke a lost world of cultural meaning. Tiger Tim’s Weekly (1910-1940), anyone? How about Commando Picture Library (1961-present)?
The organization of the book reflects the idiosyncratic preoccupations of English popular culture. Not surprisingly, social class emerges as an important theme from the get-go. Subsequent chapters take up such topics as animal comics (Down on Jollity Farm), children’s mischief (Wheezes in the Tuck Shop), and comics for girls (Jolly Hockey Sticks to Sheroes). The chapter on movie stars, royalty and comics is appropriately titled Spitting Images. Even though the authors are writing in English, it quickly becomes apparent that this is their English, not ours. The bathetic photo of the bathing beauties enjoying ‘What The Butler Saw’ on a windy pier in North Wales is enough to tell us that we are no longer in Kansas, or southern California. The full size reproduction of a 1938 strip titled Lord Snooty and His Pals, complete with dialogue like, “It’s a snip!” is another giveaway.
While a few success stories have crossed the Atlantic e.g., Modesty Blaise, Andy Capp, Alan Moore, and Judge Dredd other icons of this distinctive culture remain confined to the home market. How many Journal readers are familiar with Billy Bunter, an “overweight, cunning, squealing glutton of a schoolboy at Greyfriars, a supposed former monastery near the south coast of Kent”? Comics featuring the exploits of this schoolyard antihero were first published in 1908. Charles Hamilton, the character’s creator and main writer, clocked up “72 million words in 7,000 tales” on “the fattest schoolboy on earth” over a period of four decades. The character became so popular that he appeared in “seven television series and three specials. The shows in 1953 were broadcast twice nightly, at 5:40 pm for kids and 8 pm for grown-ups.” The photo of Billy scoffing “a cream tea in the BBC TV series, played by Gerald Campion at the age of 29,” is by itself almost worth the price of admission.
The overweight child monster seems to be one of the stock archetypes of British cartooning, along with the stouthearted adventurer, the soccer-obsessed he-man, the prim heroine, the inept swashbuckler, the world-weary clerk, and the officious teacher. Tabloid comic magazines like The Beano and The Dandy stand guard over an entire ecosystem of pratfalls, slapstick, ‘wheezes’, and class warfare. The Swots and the Blots, a strip created for a magazine called Smash! by the marvelous Leo Baxendale, pitted “creepy, clever upper-class kids against their messy lower-class rivals”. The tabloid magazine Cor! featured a strip called Ivor Lott and Tony Broke, which does not sound like the sort of project that Disney or Dell would have green-lighted. I doubt anyone in Hollywood would have been interested in making a movie or television show about the late 1960s character Dare-A-Day Davy, who acted out readers’ challenges, such as letting “a frog loose in a posh café”. The Cockney logic embedded in these stories surely speaks to a kind of suppressed rage.
The authors provide numerous examples of comics that reassured their audiences rather than incited them, however. Animals have played a particularly significant role in this regard. As the authors note, “From farmyards and forests to country estates and suburbs, the wonderlands of walking talking animals, often behaving and misbehaving uncannily like us, have been favoured realms of Britain’s illustrated literature for children since the nineteenth century.” While Mickey Mouse was a big hit in Britain, so were Teddy Tail, Flook, Rupert, and Muffin the Mule. In the 1920s, a Daily Mirror strip called Pip and Squeek invited its readers to join the Wilfredian League of Gugnuncs, which was inspired by the baby talk of the strip’s anthropomorphic characters, who used nonsense words like ‘Gug!’ and ‘Nunc!’ By 1928, “the WLOG had enrolled over 340,000 members and, thanks to international editions and syndication, ‘warrens’ and ‘burrows’ of Gugnuncs could be found throughout the world.” The League stood for good manners and kindness to animals. The book helpfully provides several examples of Gugnunc memorabilia, including cartoons, song lyrics (“Stand by friends all Members merry and free!”), and a photo of eight thousand League members crammed into the Royal Albert Hall, for a special Gugnunc event that was featured live on BBC radio.
I have only two quibbles. The first may be a little academic. It concerns the term ‘Britain’. For the most part, when the authors use the term they are at least arguably referring to something that might be better described as ‘England’. A Scottish nationalist and when it comes to matters of cultural representation, nearly all Scots are nationalists would not find his or her comics culture reflected in these pages. The two-inch reproduction of a late 1930s Our Wullie page from the Sunday Postonly hints at the existence of cartooning above England’s northern frontier. The book’s preoccupation with ‘public’ school shenanigans is redolent of a social order that revolves around London rather than Glasgow, Edinburgh, or Cardiff. The hegemony of greater London and the Home Counties that Great British Comics inevitably reaffirms is tempered to some extent by the northern English cheek that is vividly expressed today in the pages of Vizand its competitors. England means more than high tea and Oxford lawns, but it is also a more coherent and less evasive term than Britain, which may no longer apply in a context where the English fly the flag of St. George and the Scots (and, to a lesser extent, the Welsh) look to their own parliament, newspapers, and pundit class.
Second, many of the reproduced images are too small. It would take a powerful magnifying glass to help the reader make sense of Buster the Conker-er, The Greens in Electric Soup, or Baby-Face Finlayson. The authors, and perhaps the publisher, may be biased toward artwork rather than text, in hopes of catching the eye of the casual book buyer. Speaking for myself, I wanted to be able to ferret out the artfully weird Englishisms that are likely to be found sprinkled in strips like Derek the Sheep, Bonny the Otter, and The Fat Slags. Why the design team thought I would not be interested in actually reading the script to Stonehenge Kit, The Ancient Brit is beyond me.