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Funny Folks and Comic Cuts: A Brief History of British Comics

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On Saturday December 12 1874, Funny Folks #1 was published by James Henderson as a free supplement to The Weekly Budget Christmas Triple Number for 1874 (boy, those Victorians knew how to come up with a snappy title). A successor to satirical cartoon sheets like Everybody’s Album; it was an eight page tabloid with initially a roughly 50/50 mix of text and pictures, though picture strips would soon come to dominate the title. Originally a satirical publication aimed at a middle class adult audience, it gradually shifted its focus towards the working classes and, by the end of its 20-year run it was firmly aimed at children. According to several sources, including the late, great comics’ historian Denis Gifford, this now forgotten title was probably the first comic!

Comic Cuts was launched by Alfred Harmsworth, originator of the Amalgamated Press on 17 May 1890, priced at one halfpenny and relying heavily on material reprinted from a previous title, Scraps (though a copyright action by Scraps’ publisher James Henderson quickly led to Harmsworth advertising for new material), and in the course of its not unimpressive 63-year run it pretty much kickstarted the British comics industry. It has often been cited as the first comic, notably by, er, the late, great comics historian Denis Gifford. Hmm…

As might be ascertained from a careful reading of the above, it ain’t that easy to pinpoint exactly where and when comics started, mostly because in their first few decades it was actually pretty hard to decide whether the damn things were comics or not! An outgrowth of  the various (mostly textual) political satire sheets popular in the 1800s, they went through several transitional forms before ending up as the familiar comics of today, but certainly by the early 1900s comics were pretty much recognizable…and pretty much everywhere!

The success of titles like Comic Cuts, Illustrated Chips, the Funny Wonder and Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday led to a plethora of comic titles in Britain between the late 1800s and the second World War, some short-lived but many others such as Puck (1904-1940), The Rainbow (1914-1956) and Tiger Tim’s Weekly (1919-1940) hugely, wildly  successful. The period between the two World Wars in particular gave us some of the longest running comic titles of all time, notably including The Beano and The Dandy, both of which are still running today. Launched on December 4 1937, The Dandy is still one of the longest running continuously published comic titles in the world, and The Beano (launched 30 July 1938) isn’t far behind, although admittedly paper shortages during the 1940s led to these two ordinarily weekly titles instead being published on alternate weeks!

         

For close to a century, two publishers - DC Thomson of Dundee (publishers of The Beano, The Dandy, Wizard, Hotspur and others) and IPC/Fleetway (the successors to Amalgamated Press, and publishers of titles as diverse as 2000AD, Film Fun and the long running educational title Look & Learn) dominated the British comics scene, though other publishers still had significant successes; Hulton Press’s now legendary Eagle originally ran for less than twenty years from 1950-1969 (though Fleetway resurrected it from 1982-1994) but its impact cannot be underestimated and its star, space hero Dan Dare, has been revived numerous times by numerous publishers (and continues to appear regularly in the small press magazine Spaceship Away, in stories lovingly crafted in the style of the originals).

Likewise, the inexplicably long lived TV Comic alternately delighted and baffled kids from 1951-1984 with an ever changing line-up of stories based on then current TV shows ranging from The Lone Ranger to Doctor Who as well as occasional original material such as the TV Terrors and Mighty Moth, outlasting two publishing companies along the way. From 1971 onwards, its chief rival was Look-In, the ‘Junior TV Times’, which focused on the stars of the ITV networks (TV Comic was predominantly BBC-orientated).

         

  Odhams Press (founded in 1890 as a newspaper publisher) had a large share of the market until it was bought up by Fleetway in the early 1960s, continuing as a subsidiary of the newly formed International Publishing Corporation (IPC) until 1968; Odhams were notable for introducing British kids to American characters like Spider-Man and Batman via their Power Comics line of reprint weeklies, though Alan Class Publishing also had a degree of success with US reprints in its black and white digest titles (including Creepy Worlds and Tales of Suspense) from 1959-1989. So, for a time, did Thorpe & Porter, who also distributed US titles in Britain in the Sixties. For those who preferred their superheroes home grown, Mick Anglo’s Marvelman (published by L. Miller & Sons) provided an alternative to the US imports, though he was basically Captain Marvel playing at the wrong speed.

In 1972, inspired by the success of the Odhams reprints, Marvel Comics set up their own British division, Marvel UK. Initially all-reprint, once titles such as Mighty World of Marvel and Spider-Man Comics Weekly (which later went through a bewildering array of title changes from Super Spider-Man to Spider-Man TV Comic, the latter at the time when the short lived live action Spidey TV show was airing) had established a solid reader base Marvel UK began experimenting with first American material created solely for the British market (Captain Britain) and later genuine UK originated material, the early Eighties being something of a golden age for them as creators like Alan Moore (who was also responsible for resurrecting Marvelman and creating V for Vendetta for Quality’s groundbreaking Warrior magazine) and Jamie Delano crafted stories unlike anything previously seen in a Marvel title.

         

Sadly, by the mid-1990s Marvel UK, once the third largest force in British comics publishing was gone, a victim of its parent company’s financial troubles, though Panini UK still publish US Marvel reprints in Britain (as well as Doctor Who Magazine, the last survivor of the old Marvel UK line).

DC Comics have in general had less success with reprints (and none at all with originated material) in Britain, despite several attempts by companies including Thorpe & Porter (in the 60s), Egmont (in the 70s), London Editions Magazines (in the 80s and 90s) and Titan (in more recent years) to remedy this apparent injustice.

Sadly, as other distractions such as TV and later computer games became more popular, so the appeal of comics began to dwindle in the 70s and 80s, after hitting something of a peak in the 60s when characters like the Steel Claw and Grimly Feendish had a firm hold of kids’ imaginations. By the end of the 80s most of IPC’s longer running titles were on their last legs, and their comics division effectively disappeared as the new century arrived, with the departure of Buster in January 2000 after almost forty years bringing a proud tradition to a largely unnoticed close.

         

DC Thomson, though, still survive and indeed thrive, with The Beano and the recently revamped Dandy as well as the long running war digest Commando (fifty years and counting) still delighting readers week after week. Likewise 2000AD, now published by Rebellion since 2000, is as popular as ever, and a new generation of creators and innovators are forging ahead with titles like CLiNT and the forthcoming Strip Magazine.

The juvenile and nursery markets are also still in good shape, though these days they are dominated by licensed material based on toys and TV shows, a trend which began in the 80s with the likes of Thundercats and Transformers. And elsewhere, people like Bryan Talbot continue to push the boundaries of what can be done with sequential art with projects like Alice in Sunderland and the  Grandville series. Comics may not be as huge in Britain as they once were, but they’re still here. They just sometimes take a little more searching out. But it’s well worth it…

For an in-depth history of IPC Comics you can read Tony's piece earlier this week on that publisher here. For more on the history of British comics check out Paul Gravett's Great British Comics.

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Comments

  • Andy Oliver

    Andy Oliver Aug 20, 2011 at 3:13pm

    Lovely piece Tony, to top off a fantastic week's worth of history articles from you!

  • Tony Ingram

    Tony Ingram Aug 21, 2011 at 4:56am

    I think it's been a fantastic week altogether, and hopefully it'll inspire people to seek out some of the great material still coming out of the UK today (as well as those fantastic reprint collections like Charley's War)...

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