A Brief History of British Comics: Part 1- The Farce, The Dreadful and The Sloper

I’m not one for patriotism, but if there’s one thing I am proud of being British for it’s this; we make some pretty interesting comics. We may not have a pantheon of home grown superheroes to call our own, but we have Judge Dredd, Dan Dare, The Beano, The Dandy and Roy of the feckin’ Rovers.

A fascist, a man wearing joipers in space, hooligan kids, a greedy cowboy and a footballer.

Okay, maybe that’s not exactly something to be proud of per-say. But like, we also have Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison and um… I guess we have Mark Millar as well. I’m sorry, I guess that makes us responsible for the Ultimates universe. Yikes.

Anyway. Moving on.

So, back in the day, I used to read almost exclusively British comics- not out of patriotic pride or anything, just mostly out of necessity. I’ve only really, actively and semi-exclusively started buying and consuming American superhero comics in the last five or so years, rather than read them at the library or borrow them off of friends. For the longest time I either read The Beano, The Dandy, (though it wasn’t as good since it didn’t have Minnie the Minx) and Sonic the Comic before I then got into collected volumes of 2000AD and DC Vertigo from the library. I started buying 2000AD every week once I got my first ‘proper’ job and ended up amassing a whole years worth of comics which… disappeared somewhere. It may still be up in my parent’s loft, but I’ve not been inclined to climb up there with the spiders, dust and mould.

It’s pretty much the opposite now. I more or less exclusively read American comics or manga. Again- this was not a deliberate decision, it’s not because British comics are worse now or anything like that- it’s just happened that way.

But then, whilst scrolling through Twitter, I saw a new magazine about the UK comics scene was being launched and with it the announcement that 2000AD were launching a summer Megazine (I’ll explain that another time) which featured an all female writing and art staff, the first in the company’s forty one year history. Oh and there’s a new Durham Red story which, y’know, got my inner teenage girl super excited. It got me all nostalgic and I found myself falling back down the rabbit hole of Britain’s comic book pantheon and well… maybe it’s the newly aquired outsider’s perspective I have but… it never occured to me just how weird British comics are, how we seem to revel in either grim-dark, black as pitch distopia or prat-falling comedy. In the case of 2000AD, it pretty much both. Someone pointed out a couple of interesting tidbits about one of our most famous comic book villains- Judge Death;

I feel like this is British comics, 2000 A.D. especially, in a nutshell. We expect people to take this kind of thing seriously. Things that are both kinda silly and darkly terrible- yet completely awesome, in most cases.

This is present in American comics, but it isn’t the foundation of it. Imagine if about 80% of US comics were Deadpool or Lobo– complete with gore and violent, irreverent, give-no-fucks dark comedy- and had been that way since like, the seventies? That’s us. And the to be honest… that’s been us for much longer than that, arguably since at least the Victorians.

So, perhaps now is a good time to talk about the history of comics in my country? So, for the next four parts I will be doing a 101-style, compacted history of British comics from the 19th century to today- mostly looking at the themes that seem to come up, the characters and what this says about us as a nation? If anything? This part will focus on the beginning.

I mean as a history, it’s an interesting one and- as some of you maybe aware- it’s had no small impact on American comics as well. Hell, arguably it pre-dates American comics by a good forty years. Not only that, a good chunk of the names behind the most critically acclaimed comics in the last thirty years are British. Plus I’m guessing a few of you know who Judge Dredd is…

I will address both of the movies at some point, don’t worry.

The British comics industry spans a century, roughly, from the mid-eighteen fifties to today and for me- the themes they explore mainly fall into two ends of spectrum: one end being low-brow comedy for general audiences. The other is strange, dark and bleakly comedic- but entirely for adults. There are a few examples of comics that fall somewhere in the middle, but surprisingly most of them are tie-ins to other properties… and are often written by the same people who write the bleak dark comedy stuff. It’s similar to the history of the British animation ‘industry’ (what’s left of it), but that’s a whole other story.

British comics as we know and love them have their origins, like most things people love about the UK, in the nineteenth century. In her ridiculously well researched book The Invention of Murder, Judith Flanders lays out a history of how gruesome tales of true crime basically became a national obsession of ours for a century and how it influenced modern day interest in murder and serial killers. These stories, although all true came to be sensationalised on stage, in newspapers and in cheap, luridly printed serialised, illustrated literature- which became known as Penny Bloods or Penny Dreadfuls. They were hugely popular and consumed by adults and children alike and whilst they weren’t strictly speaking comics as we know them, they are a huge influence on British comics- particularly 2000AD and DC Vertigo- going forward.

As well as true crime, melodrama about poor lost working class children and stories from abroad, there were tales of heroic highway men, pirates and horror. Spring Heeled Jack, Varney the Vampire and Sweeny Todd all gained huge popularity through the Penny Dreadfuls. People mostly consumed literature, both high and low brow, in this serialised form, scraping together what little they could in order to afford it.

It was either that or watch someone get executed.

The plucky ordinary working people is also a big theme that comes up in British media and comics are no different. Which is a good place to move onto the actual first comics books, the ones with actual sequential panels that could be easily identified as a comic in the modern sense. There was was Funny Folks, which was a newspaper supplement full of large comedic, satirical illustrations making fun of current events and every day foibles.


Punch Magazine was far more famous and influential, commenting on the news and publishing cartoons right up until the late nineteen ninties.

It’s hard to get across just how influential this magazine was in British publishing and comedy- it was basically our New Yorker. It was satire about the news of the day with a… I suppose you’d call it a progressive slant? I guess?

Take this cartoon satirising Abraham Lincoln trying to recruit slaves into the army during the American Civil War.

Their stance of women’s suffrage left a lot to be desired, but they were decidedly anti-slavery. Which is at least base line human decency. That’s about as good as they got in the non-racist depiction of black people for a long time though. Punch only closed it’s doors once in 1992, then reopened in 1996 and then closed again for good in 2002. It’s seen some of the most seismic world events of the twentieth century and drew cartoons of them. Again, I cannot over emphasise how important this magazine was.

But if we’re sticking to comic books specifically, Punch was the fertile ground that grew the first honest to Betsy comic book… albeit indirectly.

‘Ally Sloper’ is our very first actual comic book protagonist. He actually started life as a strip in Judy magazine- a rival publication named to deliberately reference Punch (it was and still is probably the most British way of poking fun you could possibly imagine). It was a comedic weekly slice of life story about a hapless working class chap named Ally Sloper. His ‘adventures’ mostly consisted of escaping his landlord.

He was, incidentally, drawn by a woman named Marie Duval. So women have even been infiltrating British comics for over a century so… yup. Her husband, Charles Ross, is often given credit for her work because Victorian sexism.

After it grew in popularity, Sloper got his own book consisting entirely of these sequential panels- Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday.

Again, it was either this or watch someone get executed.

Here we see already see the beginnings the two ends of the British comic book spectrum- comedic antics or grim melodrama, but always with an element of particularly British ridiculousness. We don’t really have the same kind of action adventure genres that the American press had at the time- in fact we were importing it. Our home grown comics continued in the vein of Ally Sloper with The Beano and The Dandy, along with more serious or at least more straight faced drama comics for girls and boys.

[I don’t want to show you an image of the first issue of the Beano just yet because HOLY SHIT it’s pretty racist, I feel like you guys deserve some warning before hand]

This state of affairs continued until the fifties, when we finally got our first clean cut action orientated, superhero types, but even they were so stiff upper lipped they’d make Stephen Fry look like Gordon Ramsey. The most well known was created as a result of our own version of the Seduction of the Innocents.

See, there was Vicar decided he’d create his own hero to stop apple cheeked kiddies reading lurid American horror comics. A move so brain numbingly ironic, considering the long history of our own home grown gruesomeness, it couldn’t be anything else other than a product of the English middle class.

And that’s not even getting into our war-time comics! Or our (probably) only home-grown, American style superhero- who was a byproduct of a legal case concerning DC and Fawcett comics. Which in turn, eventually lead to another famous comic book legal case that included two of my homeland’s most beloved sons and some other guy who you might have heard of if you enjoy Image comics?

Which would one day lead to Thor gaining a sister.

You’re very welcome by the way.

But I’ll get into all of this nonsense in the next three parts of this potted history of British comics. It’s um… it’s going to be top hole innit. Cup of tea. Cricket. Royal Wedding. Get the kettle on love.

I’m sorry, I’ll see myself out, awfully sorry to bother you.

Interesting links to pique your interest:

BLIMEY! – The best blog about British comics up until the present

Hypnogoria episode 83 – A Beginner’s Guide to Judge Dredd (also where I will be getting a lot of my sources for this series)

Varney the Vampire: A Penny Dreadful Pioneer

Also, you ought to watch this in preparation for part two. It’s… kind of amazing.

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I’m a thirty something British nerd-mum and wannabe author, fueled by tea, poor decision making and a need to be distracted. Cursed to watch favourite characters die and ships sink. Send help.

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June 19, 2018 1:13 pm

Rosalind, this is awesome!