This exhibition of "wonderfully vulgar" early British comics

“One of the strangest examples of the degree to which ordinary life is undervalued”, wrote G. K. Chesterton in 1901, “is the example of popular literature, the vast mass of which we contentedly describe as vulgar” (Chesterton 1901: 8). And indeed, that curious word “vulgar” surfaces both contentedly and repeatedly in comments about comics at the turn of the nineteenth to the twentieth century, a time when comics were reaching out to a wide, soon a mass audience, and subsequently – in Britain – to a predominantly juvenile readership. To take just a few disparaging pronouncements: iconic comics hero Ally Sloper (section A) was soon declared to be “a vulgar and low person” (cit. Banville 154), while Gelett Burgess, writing in 1901, found the illustrations in the halfpenny comics (mainly sections B and C) to be not just vulgar, but “unspeakably vulgar” (Burgess [393]). When publisher Arthur Pearson was preparing a new comic, he tried to defuse such criticism in advance by announcing that the motto of Funny Pips would be “Fun Without Vulgarity” (The Big Budget, 5 September 1903). Nor was the “v” word restricted to comics; it was applied widely to popular entertainment, including the early work of Charlie Chaplin (Sweet). Looking back on his 1890s London childhood, Chaplin himself recalled with some affection his pleasure in reading the comics, coining the phrase that has been borrowed as the title of this exhibition: he found them, he said in an interview, “wonderfully vulgar” (Daily Herald, 10 September 1957). While Chaplin clearly appreciated the comics as both entertaining and inspiring, G. K. Chesterton, digging deeper, declared that those “vulgar comic papers” ought not to be dismissed offhand as “they contain some hint of the actual habits and manifest desires of the English people” (Chesterton 1908: 14). Chesterton advised us not only to take the comics seriously, but to celebrate the ordinary and the “vulgar” in them, not least because they inspired the imagination of millions of readers.

This online exhibition presents and celebrates such material, in a series of images selected from a special collection of around 5000 early British comics held in the Library and Information System (BIS) of the University of Oldenburg, Germany. The collection comprises 178 bound volumes, most of them ex-archive half-yearly volumes, plus an assortment of loose items recently donated to the Library. Any exhibition of historical comics needs a working definition of “comic”, and the definition used here is simply this: a periodical containing a considerable number of comic strips. This is not quite general usage in today’s British English, nor is it modern scholarly usage either, as the definition of “comic” is still a controversial question in academia. What could be termed the British comics format was established in the 1880s and was then consistently maintained up to the Second World War. Typically, a British tabloid comic of (say) eight pages would consist of approximately half comic strips plus half text, normally fiction. With surprising regularity, pages 1, 4/5 and 8 would consist of comic strips and cartoons, while the remaining pages, 2/3 and 6/7, would be dense letterpress. If the number of pages were increased to twelve or sixteen, then this fifty-fifty division would nevertheless be upheld – more or less. This is a potted version of the early British comics format.

My debts to various people should be recorded here. I have recently peppered comics historians Alan Clark and Roger Sabin with questions, and both have responded kindly and knowledgeably. I have also been attentively following conversations on Comix-Scholars and PlatinumAgeComics discussion lists – my thanks to all contributors. And I doff my hat to the comics bloggers out there. I am grateful to Kim Braun and Hille Schulte (BIS), who were responsible for digital work and website design, and Oliver Schoenbeck (BIS), who supervised the related exhibition in the University Library. Finally, my warmest thanks go to Bob McLaughlin, expert editor.

It should also be said that all 232 images on this site, without exception, are taken from comics, magazines, books and other items held in the Library (BIS) of the University of Oldenburg.

Kevin Carpenter

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