So here we are, at the furthest point back in time that this blog has ever ventured. The dawn of time. Well, the dawn of British comics to be more precise, which is the dawn of time for a blog about British comics I guess.
As Denis Gifford's book The Complete Catalogue of British Comics tells us, the earliest regular 'comic' (a collection of strips and jokes) was a fortnightly publication in 1825 entitled The Glasgow Looking Glass which, as its title suggests, originated in Glasgow. (I recall that this fact was also confirmed by collector John McShane years ago, - or perhaps he was the one to inform Denis, I'm not sure.) Yes, British comics originated from Scotland, and of course comics from North of the border have led the way in the UK for the last 75 years as well.
|1st Ally Sloper (1867) from 'Victorian Comics'|
The first regular British comic character was Ally Sloper, who first appeared in the satirical paper Judy on 14th August 1867. (See the scan above from Denis Gifford's book Victorian Comics.) Written by C.H. Ross and drawn by his wife Marie Duval, Ally Sloper became a recurring character and a collection of his strips and cartoons was published in the 216 page paperback book Ally Sloper: A Moral Lesson in 1873.
The first publication to set the standard that British comics would follow for decades was Funny Folks, with issue 1 published by James Henderson in 1874. This was an 8 page tabloid with a 50/50 split of text and cartoons/strips, - the format that comics such as Comic Cuts, Illustrated Chips, and others would imitate for years. Funny Folks ran for 20 years, but the issues I have in my collection are all early editions from 1875 which I'm showing here.
Bear in mind that in the 19th Century such publications were aimed at adults, not children. Subsequently their content is a mixture of political comment, satire, and social observation. The covers of Funny Folks were filled with a large cartoon by John Proctor reflecting on the news of the day, very much like the political/social comment cartoons in newspapers of today.
Inside, page 2 led off with 'Mrs.Grundy' opining on current events. As we can see from this example, complaining about England giving overseas aid, little has changed in 137 years. In places it reads like an editorial from the Daily Mail.
Considering that Funny Folks is regarded as an early comic, the actual comic strip content was minimal. (Some issues featured no strips at all.) There were plenty of well illustrated cartoons though, such as this one of society's lost souls waiting for the pub to open. (Again, little has changed.)
Some comic strips were reprinted from overseas publications and translated into English, such as The New Hat in issue 11, from a German paper...
Some strips were more richly rendered than others. Here's The Serenade from the back page of issue 11 (February 20th 1875) with cross hatching aplenty...
A week later, and the back cover of issue 12 (Feb 27th 1875) has a different artist and another technique (the large headed caricature)...
Comics have always featured humour based on a series of unfortunate events (a tradition still upheld in some Viz strips) and an early example was A Nice Long Day In Town in Funny Folks No.22 (May 8th 1875)...
Jokes about punching the wife just aren't acceptable today (and never seemed right to my mind even when Andy Capp was doing it) so this cartoon from issue 24 (May 22nd 1875) appears jarring in a modern context. Notice also the typical advertisements of the time for iron tonic, hats, and, er, a pamphlet on "Lady-Helps". (It's about advice on domestic services. What were you thinking?)
Funny Folks No.25 (May 29th 1875) was full of cartoons and comment pertaining to the Irish Derby. Proctor's cover cartoon couldn't resist a comment about home rule which was also in the news at the time, complete with a stereotypical caricature of an Irishman that would naturally be frowned upon today.
Of all the cartoons inside that issue, this one caught my eye. A loosely drawn and, in places, surreal full page illustration by Montbard of The Derby Night-Mare...
Pympkins's Public Dinner from Funny Folks No.27 (June 12th 1875) is an amusing nine-panel strip which actually features speech balloons. Nicely illustrated too.
Funny Folks was definitely inspirational for other publishers, as Ally Sloper's Half Holiday (1884) virtually copied the format with Sloper spinning off from the pages of Judy into his own title. As I mentioned earlier, Comic Cuts (1890) and others followed that format too. The combination of cartoons, social/political comment/satire and a few short strips gradually evolved over the decades into the comics we know today.
These days, the closest equivalent to Funny Folks would be Private Eye, perhaps raising the question that as Funny Folks has always been considered a comic, should Private Eye be redefined as one too? I imagine the majority of its readers, and its editor, would say not, but in essence Private Eye is more deserving of the name 'comic' than some childrens' activity magazines listed as such on the stands today.
For more information on the early comics I'd recommend Victorian Comics by Denis Gifford. It doesn't feature any artwork from Funny Folks but it has plenty of full page covers from The Big Budget, Illustrated Chips, Funny Wonder and other titles of the era. It was published in 1976 but copies still turn up today. (I bought the one above in superb condition from eBay recently.)