Monday, January 29, 2007
105 Year Flashback: Our Graphic Humourists
I always felt the term "Graphic Novelist" was a bit too pompous for someone who produced funnybooks, and assumed it was a relatively new term until I took a journey into the Comics Time Vortex to 105 years ago. There, in a copy of The Strand Magazine dated January 1902 (the same edition which featured Chapter 10 of The Hound of the Baskervilles in its first printing) was a 13 page feature entitled Our Graphic Humourists.
Perhaps for a magazine such as The Strand the term "cartoonists" was considered too lowly back then, or more likely it simply hadn't become adopted into our language. Whatever the case, "Graphic Humourists" seems an appropriately dignified appellation for the well turned out gentlemen featured in the article. Accompanied by photographs of each artist alongside their personal favourite cartoon, it's a fascinating insight into the lives of a few of the people who were there at the genesis of British comics.
Two of the artists have a particular importance. Phil May (1864 - 1903) endured early years of poverty and hardship but used these experiences as an insight into his sketches of street traders in the poorest parts of London. Eventually obtaining a job as an illustrator on the St. Stephen's Review he later left London to find work in Australia on The Sydney Bulletin. There he developed an economy of line, necessitated by the printing machines that were unable to cope with fine and delicate work. Returning to London to work on Punch, it was this style that gained him a reputation as a master cartoonist (earning in the region of £10,000 a year, - a massive sum for the times) and would be a strong influence on the work of British comic strip artists. As can be seen from the page scanned here, he was a distinctive figure, described at the time as looking like "a monk who had set up as a bookmaker". (Info from an article by Ernest Biddle in The Sunday Mercury, 1984.)
Tom Browne (1872 - 1910), another artist featured in the article, had much closer connections to comics of course. Although the feature dismisses his impact in comics by saying he drew at night for "obscure comic papers", Browne was the artist of Weary Willie and Tired Tim for Illustrated Chips as well as illustrating the first British comic based on an entertainer, Dan Leno's Comic Journal. His style in comics became a template for many more to follow and develop. An ever bigger impact was the rumoured influence his work had on Charlie Chaplin, who apparently said he based his famous "Tramp" on the look of Weary Willie and Tired Tim. (Later, comic artists would base their characters on The Tramp's body language; art perpetuating itself.)
In fact Weary Willie seems to be one of the first comic characters adapted into film according the Screenonline website. As the article says, the term became integrated into popular usage, as did Casey Court, and is even heard as a gentle insult today, although the people saying it would never have known its origin. There were also a series of Weary Willie and Tired Tim movies produced at the start of the 20th Century, which Browne either wrote or were adapted from the comics. Unfortunately none of the films have survived to the present day.
Both Tom Browne and Phil May had another part in the history of comics. They were both founder members of The London Sketch Club. In the 1980's this was the venue for meetings of the Society Of Strip Illustration (S.S.I.) where many comic creators first met and new concepts were hatched and developed. I remember attending a few of those meetings and noticing that there, on the walls, were silhouette caricatures of those founders, and feeling proud that their memory and intentions were still being honoured.