Sunday, November 30, 2008

Flashback: Comic Life (1916)

I recently bought several old British comics from eBay but unfortunately some of them are far more brittle than expected. I thought I'd scan a few pages from them here to preserve them online before they literally crumble to dust as these could be the only surviving copies in the world of such rare items.


The last 92 years have not been kind to these four 1916 issues of Comic Life. The typical eBay seller's excuse of "not bad for their age" is irrelevant, as I have mid-19th Century copies of Illustrated London News still in almost-new condition. Papers don't become tatty, creased, or damaged by themselves. It's how they're looked after that does that. These tattered, brittle, yellowed old comics will not survive much longer, and indeed one fell in half after I scanned it, but the magic of Photoshop has at least restored the look of the comics to a less-tanned state for our viewing pleasure here. (Incidentally, the bright yellow inks on these Comic Life covers isn't due to Photoshop over-saturation. The yellow colour was very vibrant on the actual comics.)


Comic Life, published by James Henderson & Sons Ltd, was launched in 1898 under the original name of Pictorial Comic Life. It simplified its title to Comic Life with issue 79 in 1899. Originally printed on pink paper, the comic acquired a full colour cover in 1909, becoming one of the earliest colour comics. The interiors switched to black and white, and the back page was printed with a red spot colour. Amalgamated Press acquired the title in 1920 and Comic Life was merged into My Favourite in 1922 after a total of 1,465 issues.


The unusual thing about these issues from 1916 is the format. Back then the norm was for comics to be tabloid, but presumably due to wartime paper restrictions or financial cutbacks these issues are 3/4 tabloid, - a unique square format! (Only for this particular year I believe.)

Humourous tramp characters were as prolific in comics of the early 20th Century as naughty schoolkids are in modern comics. The covers of these four consecutive issues of Comic Life feature Tall Thomas and Butterball, billed as Our Fat Tramps. Obesity seems to have been hilarious back then too, as the strip alongside it starred Fatty the Acrobat. Tall Thomas and Butterball was drawn by H.O'Neill, but I'm unsure as to who drew the other strip.


Like most comics of the time, Comic Life had 8 pages, 4 of which featured text stories. The densely packed small text certainly gave the reader value for money, and the stories of detectives, war, mystery and adventure would of course remain the ingredients of British adventure comics of later years.


The cenrespread of the comic (below) featured a busy mixture of short strips and cartoons, again pretty much like every other comic of the time. The strips have a basic premise. For example, Peter's Pets uses animals to help him win situations. It's a concept that was later revived for Percy's Pets in Smash! in 1966. Alongside it, P.C. Neverwait was one of many comical coppers to have graced British comics over the decades.



The most bizarre strip in the comic appears to be Pyjama Percy and Balmy Bill. These stories are dreamlike and the situations are quite surreal. However, unlike Little Nemo in Slumberland Pyjama Percy doesn't wake up at the end. In this example below, bees grow to giant size and Percy and Bill ride them to Berlin to force the Kaiser to sign peace terms, all nicely drawn by Pip Martin.


On the back page in red and black, George Davey evoked the period with his artwork for Burglar Bertie. In the first example below the comic convention of leaving a pie on the windowsill to cool was mocked as a cook leaves a blancmange on the windowsill to cool. (That a fully-formed blancmange - or "blonkmonge" as Bertie calls it, - would already be cooled is ignored for the purposes of comedy.)


Sometimes Burglar Bertie got away with his deeds, but it seems that more often than not his schemes would backfire on him. Sharing the back page was Our Red Lions, a group of Scouts who, in this instance, capture a couple of German soldiers, which was something they did regularly during World War 1 apparently.


I hope you've enjoyed this peek into the past. It's a tragedy that artists were not allowed to sign their work on these old strips and that comics and cartoonists of this era are becoming forgotten. Sadly the scarcity of such comics means that many artists and their work has already been lost forever. Over the coming months I'll be sharing more examples of pre-WW2 comics here, including pages from Illustrated Chips, Funny Wonder, and The Jester.

13 comments:

Michael Martin said...

Hmm, there ought to be some project to scan, photograph or otherwise preserve old comics/storypapers in digital form for interested parties in the future to read. Kind of like Project Gutenberg but for interesting stuff, and not all that boring poetry and philosophy!

I myself was lucky enough to find one single copy of Tiger Tim's weekly from 1940 in Oxfam or all places. It's rather worse for wear but is now stored in a dark drawer well away from light and damp.

Anonymous said...

Prewar comics are so boring! They deserve obscority. Please do comics of the 1980's that's my era.

Lew Stringer said...

I would hope that comic fans would be interested in comics from ALL eras, not just the ones they grew up with.

Peter Gray said...

I like seeing comics I havn't seen before..always something new to discover in comics...

its scary how comics can fall out of favour...fashion..

Maybe number 1 Dandy..Beanos won't be worth so much one day!!!

Love the tramp cartoons on the front...nice surrealness the first one..
Keep reminding us Lew...
Make people aware...comics didn't start in 1937!!!

Dave Whitwell said...

Lew, these are fantastic comic covers, which are so rarely seen these days. The history of British comics has very deep roots indeed and people tend to forget the fantastic work done by artists of old. These comics sold in their 100,000s in their day and yet very few remain today.

Keep 'em coming!

bristle said...

I love the vivid colours!

But for me, getting into comics was as much about touch and smell and sound (oh, those pages flipping over!) as the sights they offered - learning about photogravure and litho, and the feel of paper and ink in your hands, amazing stuff :-)

What you said about over-optimistic eBay descriptions struck home, too... ;-)

PS You were a contemporary of Michael (T) Green at Oink!, weren't you? Peter Gray's been looking for info on him.

Lew Stringer said...

Yes I've posted some info on Mike over at the Comics Uk forum.

david said...

The Dandy is accredited as the first comic to use speech bubbles - but looking at one of these covers, I notice speech bubbbles - in 1916! So it's only two, but it is still two nonetheless.

Lew Stringer said...

That's right. Speech balloons were used even further back too, and also on British comics throughout the 1920s and 1930s so The Dandy certainly wasn't the first comic to employ them.

Anonymous said...

I believe comic life was the companion comic to Full 'o Fun.

Anonymous said...

I believe comic life was companion to full o' fun - can you back e up on this? Thanks.

john robertson said...

Blimey!, I have just come accross a few copies of comic life, they are dated july 1915. Not sure at this point how many as they are mixed in with some old news papers which belonged to my mother. I have taken one out to have a closer look, it is dated july 31 1915, no 893, the front cover is titled " our fat tramps make a bust up with a new line of holiday goods". Can anyone give me a clue as to the value of these please.

Lew Stringer said...

I don't keep up with the values of comics I'm afraid. I just buy what I like.

Unfortunately the issue you have is a reprint that was issued in 1972. More details here:

Comic facsimiles

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...