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