Untold lives blog

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7 posts categorized "Comics-unmasked"

11 August 2014

Women make comics: from Marie Duval to Janine

The presence of women writers and artists stands out among the recent publications on display in the ‘Comics Unmasked’ exhibition at the British Library. Our favourite pieces include works by Laura Oldfield Ford, Nicola Streeten and Katie Charlesworth. As you go back in time, however, it can become difficult to see the creative minds of women at work in British comics.

Ally Sloper was one of Britain’s first comic heroes: in the course of the second half of the 19th century, this endearing chancer invented by Charles Ross made the transition from the printed page to music, theatre and merchandising. Beginning in 1869/70 the stories are drawn by Ross’s future wife, Isabelle Émilie de Tessier (1850-1890), using the pen-name ‘Marie Duval’. Although other artists later take over, it was de Tessier’s character who first caught the public’s imagination.

  Ally Sloper’s Summer Number (1882), with artwork by Marie DuvalAlly Sloper’s Summer Number (1882), with artwork by Marie Duval. BL shelfmark: 12315.l.47  Noc

In the subsequent decades we found surprisingly little that was explicitly by women. There are a few children’s comics by creators such as René Cloke (1904-1995) and Teresa Wilkinson (born 1903), but we felt that this work wasn’t core to the exhibition themes of subversion and protest. The only exhibit from the early 20th century that is likely to have been created using female talent is a 1913 women’s suffrage poster, lent by the V&A: this was printed by the Suffrage Atelier collective, co-founded by the author and wood-engraver Clemence Housman (1861-1955).

The visibility of women creators improves suddenly in 1950/51. Enid Blyton (1897-1968) and Dorothy M. Wheeler (1891-1966) produce the London Evening Standard children’s strip ‘Mandy, Mops and Cubby’, probably Britain’s first comic created by an all-female team. Early issues of Eagle feature work by Jocelyn Thomas (born 1920s?) and Greta Tomlinson (born 1927). And for adult audiences, The Daily Express begins to publish ‘The Gambols’, humorous tales about domestic middle-class life. Although Gambols stories in 1950 are signed Barry Appleby, his wife’s name is eventually added alongside and it is now generally acknowledged that Doris ‘Dobs’ Appleby (1911-1985) created the characters with her husband and was probably the principal writer all along. A more select adult audience in 1950 might also have encountered the erotic magazine Fads and Fancies, which contains stories drawn by ‘Janine’, a pen-name for Reina Bull (1924-2000). Unlike her cover artwork for science fiction magazines and pulp fiction novels, Bull’s contribution to erotic comics is largely unrecorded. The writer of the story on display (‘Delia’) is Aubrey Lamonte, a potentially gender-neutral name for an author who doesn’t appear to have been identified yet.

In ‘Comics Unmasked’ we show a range of older comics from the British Library’s collection that feature work by women creators, but in the 80 years between Marie Duval and Janine there must have been many more. We were on the lookout whilst selecting material for display, but pseudonyms, initials and pen-names are common and many stories are unsigned and uncredited. The range of published reference sources is growing but still limited, and academic interest in this field is fairly new. We’ll need to assess the findings of a new generation of researchers before the role of women creators in British comics of the 19th and early 20th centuries can be properly celebrated.

Adrian Edwards
Co-Curator, Comics Unmasked  Cc-by

Further reading:
UK Comics Wiki
Alan Clark. Dictionary of British comic artists, writers and editors (1998)


07 July 2014

Sidekicks and arch enemies in the archives

Inspired by finding Batman in the India Office Records for our last post, I decided to look for some more Gotham City characters in the baptisms, marriages, burials and wills for Europeans in India.  

              Coaster with the word Pow offered for sale in the BL Shop in 2014            Coaster with the word Wham  offered for sale in the BL Shop in 2014

Coasters offered for sale in the BL Shop 2014

Amongst the thousand or so Robins who appear, my eye was caught by a sad entry.  Robin, whose father and mother were unknown, was baptised aged about five years at Ganjam on 6 November 1810 by W. Montgomerie acting magistrate.

  Register entry for Robin's baptism

IOR/N/2/4 f.372  Noc

Could I find Batman’s female sidekick, Batgirl?  How about Claire De La Bat who married Eugene Francis Duncan at the Catholic Cathedral in Calcutta on 14 August 1927 at the age of 20?

Register entry for Claire De La Bat
IOR/N/1/503 f.42Noc

Let’s move on to Batman’s arch enemies.  First – Mr Freeze.

Register entry for Hendrick Freeze
IOR/N/1/1 p.27 Noc

Hendrick Freeze was a soldier who was buried in Calcutta on 5 July 1719.

Next, The Riddler. Stanislaus Riddler was born on 28 September 1912 and baptised in Dacca on 10 October 1912. He was the son of John David Riddler, a railway guard, and his wife Marie Louise IOR/N/1/384 f.182].

Also, The Joker.  (Well, almost!)

  Register entry for Jolker Junius

Johker Junius M F Van Hamert was a passenger on the French mail steamer Irrawaddy. He died at Aden of anaemia on 12 May 1885 aged 60 and was buried there on the same day.

Not forgetting Hush - George Hush of Calcutta made a will on 18 September 1787 leaving all his worldly goods to his mother Mary Hush of Deptford Kent [IOR/L/AG/34/29/6 f.182].  There is a detailed inventory of his possessions at death which range from carpenter’s tools, timber and ship masts, to a broad sword, a palanquin, and a cracked tureen [IOR/L/AG/34/27/9 f.240].

And finally, The Penguin. Samuel Thomas was buried in the Town Cemetery at Rangoon on 29 July 1887 aged 28.  He was a sailor on board HMS Penguin [N/1/290 f. 160].

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records  Cc-by

Further reading : 

Batman in India 

British in India - images of the documents in this post are available from find my past

Comics Unmasked exhibition


03 July 2014

Batman in India

What story could Untold Lives possibly find in the India Office Records to link in with the Comics Unmasked exhibition?  It seemed that we might have to admit defeat until we remembered that there was an officer called Batman in the East India Company army.  And while our Batman might not have been a superhero, he certainly led an interesting life.

Batman (or Battman) John Lorimer was baptised on 22 July 1781 at Eye in Suffolk.  He joined the Bombay Army as a cadet in 1802 and served with the Bombay European Regiment.

  NocBaptismal entry for Batman John Lorimer
IOR/L/MIL/9/112 f.108 NocBaptismal entry for Batman John Lorimer

In 1806 Lorimer became embroiled in a quarrel with Lieutenant George Cauty of the Bombay Native Infantry.  Cauty claimed that Lorimer had circulated a report highly prejudicial to his character, namely that Lorimer had kicked and beaten him.  Matters came to a head on 23 February when there was a confrontation between Cauty, Lorimer and Major Thomas Gibson in Church Street Bombay.  Cauty claimed that Lorimer and Gibson drew their swords and stopped his palanquin by force.

European gentleman reclining in a box palanquin
Add.Or.4200 European gentleman reclining in a box palanquinNoc

On 28 April 1806 Cauty faced a Court Martial on charges brought by Gibson in relation to the events of 23 February:

- refusing to obey orders and behaving disrespectfully

- ‘maliciously aspersing’ Gibson’s character by accusing him of lying

- behaving in a scandalous and infamous manner unbecoming an officer and a gentleman.

Cauty was found guilty on all charges and sentenced to be cashiered, that is dismissed and debarred from future employment with the Company . 

The following trial that day dealt with charges brought by Lorimer  against Lieutenant Bryan McGuire for behaving in an ‘irregular and unofficer-like manner’ between 20 and 23 February by acting as the bearer of two written challenges to Lorimer.  McGuire was also found guilty and cashiered.   The Court noted the inconsistency of evidence given by Lieutenant Charles Savage and recorded its belief that he was instrumental in promoting the quarrel between Cauty and Lorimer.

In 1808 Cauty was back in England petitioning the Company in vain for reinstatement.   He then joined the King's army, securing a commission in the Royal York Rangers.

Lorimer was also in London at this time having been granted furlough on a sick certificate.  He had married Ann Catherine Houghton in Bombay on 17 September 1806 but she does not appear to have been with him when he arrived in England on board the East Indiaman Huddart in September 1807.  Lorimer had sustained a severe wound to the abdomen when fighting for the Company and suffered from an abcess in his liver.  He ran up large medical bills being treated in London by 'eminent physicians'.  Although Lorimer petitioned the Court of Directors to be pensioned, claiming that 'a return to India would be attended with immediate Death’, he went back in 1809.  He was eventually pensioned on 13 May 1815 in England.

Batman Lorimer died in November 1820 in Bedford but he had previously lived in Brussels.  His will names his wife Mary, two daughters Caroline Elizabeth and Harriet, and a natural son John Lorimer Eastaugh.   Please get in touch if you can tell us more about our Batman in India!

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading –
Cadet papers of Batman John Lorimer IOR/L/MIL/9/112 f.108
Marriage to Ann Catherine Houghton IOR/N/3/4 f.277 – see image on find my past
For full details of the quarrel between Lorimer and Cauty: IOR/D/165 ff.89-101
Courts Martial of Lieutenants George Cauty and Bryan McGuire: IOR/L/MIL/ 17/4/376 Bombay General Orders 28 April 1806
Lorimer’s petitions to the East India Court of Directors: IOR/D/167 ff.330-334
Will of Battman John Lorimer: The National Archives PROB 11/1637

 More about Comics Unmasked


23 June 2014

Obscenity and men’s erotica – 1970s comics

The 1970s was a momentous decade for the British Library: it’s when we were founded by Act of Parliament and both collections and staff transferred in from institutions such as the British Museum. It was also a momentous decade in terms of changing attitudes towards sex in this country, and this can in part be tracked through the comics that found their way into the library’s collections.

1971 saw the longest obscenity trial in English history. Issue no. 28 of the satirical magazine Oz contained a comic that combined an existing erotic story by the American comics creator Robert Crumb with the British children’s character Rupert Bear. The result horrified many people, and prosecution under the Obscene Publications Act of 1959 was perhaps inevitable. Courtroom discussions show that the case highlighted a generational gap: young people found the story funny and harmless (the story had in fact been suggested by a teenager), whereas most older people were truly appalled. The magazine’s three editors were found guilty and jailed, but were released on appeal. But prosecutors didn’t let it lie: the next year the underground comic Nasty Tales was in the dock for obscenity, but found not guilty. The documentary comic The Trials of Nasty Tales recounts the court case.

Cover of The Trials of Nasty Tales (1973).
The Trials of Nasty Tales (1973). BL shelfmark: Cup.51/127.

Fast forward a few years and a quick survey of British ‘top shelf’ magazines published in 1977 shows that erotic comics had become widespread. Most of the mainstream erotic titles for straight men contained British or American comics. Penthouse was publishing ‘Oh Wicked Wanda!’ by Frederick Mullally and Ron Embleton; Mayfair had ‘Carrie’ by Mario Capaldi; and Club International  was printing one-off stories such as Pete Davidson’s ‘At Home with Richard Nixoff’ or Jamie Mandelkau’s ‘The Lust League of America’. Fiesta had been publishing comics in the mid-1970s (e.g. ‘Miss Muffin’), but by 1977 these had been largely dropped in favour of erotic cartoons. All these comics are essentially more about humour than eroticism, often based around puns or contrived storylines that place the characters into sexually compromised situations.

Gay men’s magazines in 1977 also contained comics. They were generally much more explicit: unlike their straight equivalents, gay comics often showed fantasy sex acts in full graphic detail. Prime examples are Oliver Frey’s beautifully drawn adventures of ‘Rogue’, which appeared in Him International  under his pseudonym Zack.

The widespread availability of these titles went largely without comment from the police, and publishers felt free to deposit them with the British Library. The obscenity trials of Oz and Nasty Tales in 1971-72 had started a debate. The tacit acceptance of erotic comics that we see by 1977 is perhaps evidence of how much attitudes towards sex in British society were changing.

Adrian Edwards
Co-curator, Comics Unmasked

Many of the titles mentioned above are on display in Comics Unmasked.  Join Oliver Frey alongside Melinda Gebbie (Lost Girls) at the British Library on Thursday 3 July from 18.30 – 20.30. Book now


02 June 2014

A comic take on life in the 1880s

While putting together the Comics Unmasked exhibition, it became clear that the 1880s were something of a high point in British comics history. The popular magazine Fun was just one of several that were regularly carrying single-page comics at this time. It’s ‘British Workman’ stories, written and drawn by James Francis Sullivan (c. 1852-1936), are particularly enjoyable because they show that the Victorians were as interested in discussing class differences as we are. The jokes are often still funny for us today, as in the case of the clock-watching painter who barely gets any work done at all.

Cartoon of a house-painter
Fun, 18 Jan 1888. [BL shelfmark: P.P.5273.c.]  Noc

Less well known to comics historians are the stories that appeared in the Christmas issues of papers such as the Illustrated London News and The Graphic. My co-curator Paul Gravett had heard about these through the grapevine, but hadn’t had the opportunity to examine any of them. It appears that some libraries in the 19th century didn’t retain the Christmas specials, maybe because they contained stories for family reading rather than the usual news and current affairs. Fortunately, we do have them at the British Library.

The Christmas 1884 number of the Illustrated London News, for example, contains a wonderful colour comic entitled ‘Rouge et noir … from Miss Pettifer’s Diary’, (writer/artist not known) in which we follow the social life of a high-society lady as she attends balls and shooting parties.

  'Rouge et noir … from Miss Pettifer’s Diary’

Illustrated London News, Christmas Number 1889. [BL shelfmark: HS.74/1099]  Noc

Similarly, The Graphic Christmas 1889 issue contains the ‘The girl with thirty-nine lovers’. This focuses on the experiences of a correspondent (a Miss E.H. Townsend?) who reports that she was pursued by 39 gentlemen while on a sea voyage: an adventure that she turns into a poem with sketches, and which William Ralston (1848-1911), a staff artist at The Graphic, then makes into a comic.

Together, these Victorian comics provide an interesting insight into the lives, values and aspirations of people in Britain in the 1880s. They also show that humour can sometimes work across the decades.

Book now for Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK, at the British Library until 19 August 2014.

Adrian Edwards
Co-curator, Comics Unmasked  Cc-by


02 May 2014

Pushing the boundaries

Adult and contentious themes such as sex and violence are a feature of Comics Unmasked at the British Library. If you want to understand how moral and social values have changed, if you want to see how under-represented sections of society have expressed themselves, and if you want to see what political issues have exercised people’s minds, then comics are a source not to be overlooked.

There are three broad categories of content in the exhibition that might be considered ‘difficult’. The first is material that reflects the period in which it was published. Britain has changed considerably since the 1950s, for example, and the treatment of race in Enid Blyton’s Mandy, Mops and Cubby stories makes uncomfortable reading today. But it reflects views that were current at the time and the stories, illustrated by Dorothy M. Wheeler, were published in a leading London newspaper as well as being issued as children’s books: they were therefore considered mainstream and are an example of how the library’s collections can help gain a historical perspective on society and its changing values. 

  Cover of Torrid Erotic Art, 1979
Torrid Erotic Art, 1979 © Erich von Götha (Robin Ray)

Next there are comics that aimed to shock at their time of publication. Skin (1992), written by Peter Milligan with artwork by Brendan McCarthy, uses graphic violence as part of a reaction against the gentrification of comics into respectable graphic novels. It’s part of a bigger picture. The pages from Skin that we have selected to display are upsetting, but they illustrate the power of comics and why writers and artists so often choose to work with this medium.

Finally, there is material that was originally produced for a relatively closed audience of like-minded people, but which we are displaying to the wider public. Much of the erotica falls into this category, such as the comics that appeared in a range of ‘top shelf’ magazines. While some visitors may be bemused by the explicit drawings of a rough sex fantasy in the 1970s gay title Him International, others may be offended. In the section ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ we consider how erotic comics have developed over time: how they are a reflection of changing attitudes in society, how they altered with arrival of HIV/Aids, and so forth. The curatorial team feel that this is an important topic to address. Nevertheless, the design of the gallery space allows visitors to walk straight past this entire section should they wish.

Adult and contentious they may be, but these comics are an important historical resource. Comics creators have often pushed at the boundaries, and through them, we can all be inspired to think about these boundaries and how they have always changed with time.

Adrian Edwards, Paul Gravett, John Harris Dunning.  Cc-by

Visit Comics Unmasked


29 April 2014

Comics Unmasked - Countdown to opening

Just a few days to go until the opening of the Comics Unmasked at the British Library, the UK’s largest ever exhibition of mainstream and underground comics. The gallery is almost finished, loans from museums and private lenders are starting to arrive, and exhibits from the Library’s own collection are being placed in their display cases.

  Comics Unmasked exhibition cases Noc

It is particularly exciting that we are going to be showing such a wide range of materials from across the Library’s vast collection. There are books, magazines and newspapers from the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries, plus even older publications that help explain the historical background to British comics. We’ve hardy every exhibited any of these before, and we’re sure that everyone will find something new to discover. And they all say something about people across time:  what makes us laugh, what makes us angry, what we find titillating, how we deal with inequality or personal tragedy, and because the show looks at material on the edge, we can start to see how social and moral values have changed with time.

There are 193 exhibits in all, including published works, scripts from writers such as Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, and original comic artwork by the likes of Frank Quitely and Kate Charlesworth. Added to these are audio-visual points where you can listen to comics-related recordings from Library’s sound collections, explore web comics, and see clips from the world of film and video.

Comics Unmasked exhibition casesNoc

 It’s all presented in a gallery space designed by Dave McKean: a different look and feel for each of the six exhibition sections reflecting the content (e.g. corridors of power for ‘Politics’), a twisting and turning overhead ribbon that draws the sections together, and a few pieces of new artwork that he has created to enhance the overall experience.

Doors open Friday 2 May at 10.00

Adrian Edwards  Cc-by
Co-curator Comics Unmasked


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