HISTORY: A year in Irish comics – the Belfast Telegraph in 1925

One of the things I’ve always wanted to do with the Irish Comics Wiki is to give the current generation of Irish creators a context other than just contemporary British and American comics, something specific we can bring to the comics we make. Although I’ve unearthed a rich tradition of cartooning and illustration, and a decent selection of creators who have worked in and influenced comics in Britain and America, the sad fact is, Ireland really doesn’t have a history of creating and publishing actual comics.

Or has it? You see, there’s one place I haven’t looked.

Newspapers.

The newspaper strip has a long and distinguished history. It’s where American comics started, and some of those early newspaper comics were doing fantastically sophisticated and inventive things decades before what fandom calls the “Golden Age”. British newspaper comics didn’t really get going til the 20s, but get going they did, and their quality – and their respectability – was often much greater than what was going on in the weeklies. So I’ve decided to start investigating what comic strips were published in Irish newspapers.

I’ve started with the Belfast Telegraph, because it’s my local paper, I know it ran comic strips, and Belfast’s Newspaper Library has a more-or-less complete run on microfilm. And I’ve started in 1925, because that’s the year Bill Glenn’s Oscar first appeared.

If, as I said, UK newspaper comics didn’t get going until the 1920s, then the Tele must have been something of an early adopter. At the start of 1925 it’s running one or two strips a day, by the end of the year three or four. There are several reprinted American ones: Bud Fisher’s Mutt and Jeff until the end of January; Martin Branner’s Winnie Winkle from July to September; and Sydney Smith’s The Gumps from September to the end of the year.

The other strip that’s present at the start of the year is The Doings of Dudly by Fonn. This one is probably home-grown. The humorous adventures of a rather posh chap with a monocle, it’s quite crudely drawn, and runs three days a week – on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Fonn’s real name might be Frederick Garnett – there’s a comic strip called “The Doings of Dudley” in the Boy’s Own Paper in 1924 and ’25 credited to that name – although that might be a coincidence.

The Doings of Dudly by Fonn, Belfast Telegraph, 1925

After Dudly’s doings end in mid-March, Fonn starts a new strip called Button’s Biography. It stars Mr. Button, a middle-aged man with a demanding wife and a fondness for booze, again running three days a week. Fonn’s cartooning improves enormously over the course of the year, although he does rely heavily on characters overacting wildly to punchlines, with exaggerated gasps, starts, faints and flailing arms. The American strips are rather more subtle, with better characterisation, better setups, and better drawing.

Button's Biography by Fonn, Belfast Telegraph, 1925

With one exception. From February to July there’s a daily strip called Bunty and the Car by H. O. Batho, and it’s really a bit of a minor gem. Bunty is a spoiled young flapper who gets a car for her birthday – cue a combination of motoring jokes and character comedy, involving Bunty and her fellow flapper Monty, their would-be boyfriends, the chinless George and the handsome Maurice, as well as Bunty’s mum, dad and grandma. It’s drawn in a style that’s neither cartoony nor illustrative, but good dramatic comic art. The body language is naturalistic and the angles and framing are modern and cinematic.

Bunty and the Car by H. O. Batho, Belfast Telegraph, 1925

This strip was probably bought in rather than originated for the Telegraph. Batho was a Yorkshireman who also drew for the Daily Mirror‘s children’s supplement Pip and Squeak, and it fills the gap between the end of Mutt and Jeff and the beginning of Winnie Winkle, where there’s otherwise no reprinted strip. But I can’t find any reference to it anywhere else, and it’s interesting.

Two new strips, both probably homegrown, started in September. The first, on the 7th, is called Cat Tales for the Kiddies. It’s a mostly silent pantomine strip, and it’s signed, but not legibly. The first letter is probably a P. It’s also not terribly good. Some strips are virtually incomprehensible, and most of the ones that do make sense aren’t funny or well-drawn.

Cat Tales for the Kiddies, Belfast Telegraph, 1925

The other, as I mentioned at the start, is Oscar by Bill Glenn, which starts on the 28th. Oscar is a funny-looking little man in Oxford bags, whose witticisms annoy the girls he’s usually trying to chat up. The humour is mostly verbal, and Glenn’s use of comics storytelling is often clumsy – a line of dialogue will often start in one panel and finish in another for no good reason. Characters are often drawn full-figure against a blank background. But his drawing is lovely and fluent. His line is loose and choppy, with an Eddie Campbell quality to it, and when he does locate his characters in a three-dimensional environment he produces some lovely images. He also clearly likes drawing fashionably-dressed women, something he was later noted for when he drew Dorothea for the Daily Mail.

Oscar by Bill Glenn, Belfast Telegraph, 1925

Lastly, there’s something that isn’t quite a comic strip, but is in the same ball park. Every Monday, from the first of the year, 5 January, to the last, 28 December, there’s an illustrated children’s serial, The Golden Walnut by “Blackbird”. Each illustration is “signed” with a little silhouette of a bird, so it seems the writer and illustrator are the same person. The story seems (I didn’t read it that closely) to involve two children, Brian and Grania, who don’t know each other in real life, but meet up in their dreams to find the golden walnut of the title, encountering all sorts of magical creatures and national stereotypes along the way.

The Golden Walnut by Blackbird, Belfast Telegraph, 1925

So there’s a snapshot of comics published in Ireland in one selected year. I’m going to keep looking, to find out what else the Telegraph published, and also what was published in other Belfast papers like the News Letter and the Irish News. If anyone else with access to a local newspaper archive fancies investigating what was going on in other parts of the country, please do and let us know what you find out!