All Picture Comic 16 April 1921. Copyright © The British Library Board
Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK
2 May – 19 August 2014
Featuring such iconic names as Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Alan Moore (Watchmen, V for Vendetta), Grant Morrison (Batman: Arkham Asylum) and Posy Simmonds (Tamara Drewe), this exhibition traces the British comics tradition back through classic 1970s titles including 2000AD, Action and Misty to 19th-century illustrated reports of Jack the Ripper and beyond.
British Library Newspapers has been receiving British comics via legal deposit since the 1870s, when Funny Folks (1874-1894) became the first publication to meet what would probably be the generally accepted definition of a comic. Originally designed as a pull-out supplement to the Weekly Budget, its publisher, James Henderson, soon realised he was on to a good thing and launched it as a weekly paper in its own right. Its success inspired the engraver and publisher, Gilbert Dalziel, to bring out what became the most famous and most popular of all Victorian comics, Ally Sloper's Half-Holiday (1884-1916).
Ally Sloper's Half Holiday 27 December 1884. Copyright © The British Library Board
Sub-titled 'Being a selection, side-splitting, sentimental, and serious, for the benefit of old boys, young boys, odd boys generally, and even girls', many of the cartoons are oblique comments on current events of the time and as such can be fairly incomprehensible to the present-day reader. Ally Sloper himself was rather a disreputable character, generally drunk, and recognisable by his characteristic red nose and battered top hat.
British and Irish comics continue to be received today via legal deposit.
The last decade of the 19th century saw a boom in comic publishing, beginning with Comic Cuts (1890-1953), another of the creations of the press baron, Alfred Harmsworth (later Lord Northcliffe). Part of its success was due to its unprecedentedly low price of one halfpenny, half the cost of its predecessors. Rival publishers soon brought out competitors to Comic Cuts which were similar in style and name, such as Funny Cuts (1890-1920), and Harmsworth responded with further titles of his own, such as Illustrated Chips (1890-1952). These titles followed fairly closely the format established by Funny Folks and there is little to distinguish one title from another.
Ally Sloper and his contemporaries were designed to be read and enjoyed by adults not children. Comics which were designed primarily for children were not published until the early years of the 20th century, the first being the Rainbow (1914-1956), although Puck (1904-1940), which began as an adult comic, gradually came to be aimed at a much younger readership. The success of the Rainbow was followed by the conversion of a number of failing adult comics into children's comics.
Comic Cuts 17 May 1890. Copyright © The British Library Board
Ally Sloper was the first comic strip hero and, before long, Harmsworth's comics began to introduce recurring characters who became heroes in their own right, such as Jack B. Yeats's detective, Chubb-Lock Homes, in Comic Cuts, and Tom Browne's tramps, Weary Willie and Tired Tim, in Illustrated Chips. Later Tiger Tim became the front page hero of Rainbow and continued into the 1980s in the pages of Jack and Jill (1954-1985). The earliest British comics held in the Newspaper collection were printed in black and white only (or occasionally black ink on coloured paper).
Puck was the first comic to print a substantial number of its pages in colour - another Harmsworth paper. The next revolution in comic production methods came in 1936 when Mickey Mouse Weekly (1936-1955) became the first comic to be printed in full colour photogravure.
Illustrated Chips 24 July 1909. Copyright © The British Library Board
Film Fun 24 July 1909. Copyright © The British Library Board
The 1930s were undoubtedly the golden age of the comic, with a large number of titles in publication ranging from Tiny Tots (1927-1959), aimed at the 'nursery market', to Crackers (1929-1941) for older children. The boom culminated in the launch of the Dandy in 1937 and the Beano in 1938, both published by D.C. Thomson of Dundee, which introduced a new style of comic drawing. These remain among the most popular children's comics of all time, and the oldest still in publication. What makes the Dandy, for example, stand out from the myriad other comic titles which have been published this century is not only its longevity but the wealth of characters it introduced who have transcended their existence on the page and become national figures.
Examples are: Korky the Cat, who appeared on the front page from the first issue until 1984; Desperate Dan, whose recent prospective retirement was cancelled after extensive coverage in the national press; Black Bob, the sheepdog; Corporal Clott; Brassneck, the robot schoolboy; and strong girl Pansy Potter.
The Second World War years were bad ones for comics, with paper shortages killing off many of the famous pre-war titles and legal prohibitions against the launch of new ones, although British Library Newspapers still has significant holdings from this period.
Big Comic 4 July 1914. Copyright © The British Library Board
The silver age of the comic was the 1950s, epitomised by the Eagle (1950-1969), with its good-quality paper, full colour photogravure, excellent artwork and front-page hero, Dan Dare, by Frank Hampson, doing battle against the Mekon. Up until this time, comics had been aimed at both boys and girls, but a definite gender split began to open up, with the Eagle and Girl (1951-1964) clearly aimed at different markets.
Comics have always reflected the popular entertainment media of the time, with titles such as Film Fun (1920-1962) inevitably followed by TV Comic (1951-1984). Few comics published today, apart from the Dandy and the Beano, have been in existence for very long, two exceptions being sixties survivors, Buster (1960 to date) and Twinkle (1968 to date).
British Library Newspapers has copies of all the comics recorded in the Select List of British Comics Held in the British Library Newspapers, as well as many others. All are indexed, both by title and by place of publication or distribution, in the Newspaper Library catalogue. To consult comics, readers need only to place an order in the usual way, listing titles and years required, to enable staff to retrieve the material they wish to read. All comics in the Newspaper Library are consulted on the Security Tables only in the Main Reading Room.
Little Sparks 27 August 1921. Copyright © The British Library Board
In addition to the Select List of British Comics, the open access reference shelves contain specialist catalogues and reference guides which will also help readers to locate relevant titles, before they check our own catalogues for holdings information:
- Penny Dreadfuls and Comics: English Periodicals for Children from Victorian Times to the Present Day ([London]: Victoria and Albert Museum, 1983);
- Alan Clark, Dictionary of British Comic Artists, Writers and Editors (London: British Library, 1998);
- Denis Gifford, The British Comic Catalogue 1874-1974 (London: Mansell, 1975);
- Denis Gifford, The Complete Catalogue of British Comics (Exeter: Webb & Bower, 1985);
- Denis Gifford, Discovering Comics, 2nd edn (Princes Risborough: Shire, 1992); and
- Dennis [i.e. Denis] Gifford, Happy Days: A Century of Comics (London: Bloomsbury Books, 1988).
Some other comics are held in the main British Library at St Pancras, notably Beezer, Bunty, Judy, Knockout, Lion, Magic, Radio Fun, and Tiger, and these may be read in the Humanities Reading Room there.
Some interesting articles on British comics appear on the BBC Cult web pages.
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