(exhibits dated 1914–38)

to the contents page to the exhibits

The relationship between comics and cinema has always been close. As soon as “picture palaces” started to be built in Britain before the First World War, British comics expressed their admiration for the cinema in a variety of ways. Beginning in the early 1910s, for instance, the first of a series of “cinemas” (small, cinema-related strips) appeared in the comics: “The Butterfly Picture Palace”, “Chuckles’ Weekly Cinema”, and “The Firefly Funny Film”; and then in the twenties “The Funny Wonder Picture Palace”, “Comic Cuts’ Cinema”, “Chips’ Comic Cinema”, and “Reel Comedies”. It is noticeable that the artists drawing these “cinemas” regularly ignored the opportunity to be experimental, or perhaps their conservative editors would not allow such artistic freedom. In an early “cinema” strip, an angling story – stiff and awkward, almost a child’s rendering of a movie gag – there is little integration of word and picture: in one panel, a splash is visually presented, “Splash!” goes the caption, and “Splash!” echoes the sound-word (The Firefly, 26 February 1916). Anyone looking for innovative links between the early cinema and the early comics would have to look elsewhere.

After all, silent-movie slapstick had a comics equivalent: knockabout. And the master of slapstick, Charlie Chaplin, has recorded his debt to the knockabout characters in early British comics, particularly Weary Willie and Tired Tim, also the Casey Court gang, himself having played the role of gang-leader Billy Baggs in an early stage appearance in 1906-7 (Haining 31). The hectic farce of Victorian and Edwardian comics seems to have filtered through to the early Keystone and Essanay shorts, and then filtered back with even greater energy into British comics. Comics artist Bertie Brown, after enjoying a Charlie Chaplin movie in the summer of 1915, suggested a comic strip based on the actor’s movie persona to the editor of The Funny Wonder, who, immediately and acutely sniffing improved sales potential, commissioned a new series, “Charlie Chaplin, the Scream of the Earth”, running on the cover page from 7 August 1915 onwards. The sharp increase in the comic’s circulation prompted the publisher (Amalgamated Press) to exploit this vogue, and they hastily created space for more Chaplin-related material in a variety of their magazines, including The Family Journal, Answers, Pluck, The Boys’ Friend, The Boys’ Realm and The Jester (Gifford 1989: 37). Other silent-movie stars quickly followed, including Charlie’s brother Syd, whose career in the comics began in The Firefly in 1915.

Once the First World War was over, the Amalgamated Press devised further strategies to exploit the silent cinema, which was rapidly becoming the chief source of entertainment for the young (King and Saxby 6–8; Roberts 175), bringing out the weekly magazines – but technically not comics – Boys’ Cinema in 1919 and then Girls’ Cinema in 1920, followed by what was to become their best-selling comic in the inter-war period, Film Fun, in 1920 (King and Saxby 10). This weekly comic consisted of strongly inked black-and-white comic strips based on the films and personae of most of the famous movie comedians of the time, including Harold Lloyd, Charlie Conklin, Fatty Arbuckle, Joe E. Brown, and many others. No royalties were paid to the American studio owners, who tacitly tolerated this use of their characters, presumably believing that such publicity throughout Britain and her colonies would eventually work out to their benefit (King and Saxby 13; Mitchell 100). Film Fun was quickly followed by a companion, The Kinema Comic (also 1920), both of these comics specialising in comic strips derived from the big studio comedies, while the later adventure-based Film Picture Stories (1934) mined American thrillers and westerns. From the early 1930s onwards, Film Fun and increasingly the knockabout comics began to include “picture-thrillers” or “picture-serials”, adventure strips based on Hollywood movies, particularly westerns. And it was here that, in the late 1930s, cinematic techniques finally entered British comics.