How Alex Raymond’s “Rip Kirby” prompted post World War Two concerns for British comic creators’ jobs

A  Daily Mail collection of a Rip Kirby story, published in 1955
A Daily Mail collection of a Rip Kirby story, published in 1955

Reprints of American comic strip have been a common occurrence in British comics and newspapers for decades, as far back as the 1930s. This includes, for example, some strips in the tabloid Mickey Mouse Weekly, launched in 1936, although many were originated here, with art by Basil Reynolds, among others. Early issues are much sought after for that very reason.

Superheroes and adventure strips, from Superman to westerns, to humour strips, too, were reprinted in huge numbers in the 1950s, some British publications even featuring dollar prices, to accentuate their lure to readers. Odhams brought Marvel Comics to British audiences from 1964 onwards in their “Power Comics” lineup, as did, later, other publishers, before Marvel UK launched with Mighty World of Marvel in 1972.

But back in 1947, the increasing amount of reprint of American strips and text stories in British comics, magazines and newspapers was raising concerns in Parliament, the flood gates opened as a result of the Government’s interpretation of terms in the American Loan Agreement, a post–World War Two loan made to the UK by the United States in 1946, enabling its battered economy to keep afloat. (The entire loan was paid off in 2006).

During the conflict, no imports of fiction of any kind were allowed from the United States, in part to ensure space in vital shipping was given over to supplies considered more essential to the war. Although the ban continued briefly post-war, the government decided that the Loan Agreement had effectively ended their ability to prevent imports, including publishers right to buy in reprint material,

As a consequence, US strips and text stories were beginning to appear in a variety of magazines and newspapers, raising concerns that such reprints were denying work to British writers and artists – not to mention the impact the quality and content of some material might be having in young minds.

During a parliamentary debate in November 1947, Thomas Cecil “Tom” Skeffington-Lodge, who was Labour MP for Bedford from 1945 to 1950, singled out Alex Raymond’s “Rip Kirby” as on example, a character “who battles with gangsters every morning in the Daily Mail.

Rip Kirby Daily Comic Strip Original Art dated 25th March 1947 (King Features Syndicate, 1947). Via Heritage Auctions
Rip Kirby Daily Comic Strip Original Art dated 25th March 1947 (King Features Syndicate, 1947). Via Heritage Auctions

“He always drives his big American car on the right hand side of the road, with the result that his country of origin cannot be concealed,” Skeffington-Lodge noted.

Gros Michel bananas, the most popular banana export of the time. Image: Wikipedia

”Then there is the comic strip that appears nightly in The Star newspaper, referring an as-yet unidentified American strip which was running in the popular London newspaper. “The mischievous twins depicted in that paper appear to have access to an endless quantity of ice-cream and bananas – a disheartening thing for those British youngsters who fellow daily their adventures.”

(Might this have been “Katzenjammer Kids”? Do let us know if you have information. In 1947, bananas were still in short supply, and sales restricted to young people under 18 and to expectant mothers. The Star, which ceased publication in 1960, is not available in online archives).

The MP suggested some £100,000 – in today’s money, over four million pounds (a figure calculated on the basis of inflation averaged at 5.2% a year), – was being spent on reprint material, that he felt could be better spent in the UK.

Thomas Cecil “Tom” Skeffington-Lodge MP | Image: National Portrait Gallery

“No one wants to stop important literature or real art, any more than great music, from moving freely across national frontiers,” he noted. “Indeed, the more that happens, the better I should be pleased. But some 4,000 stories, bought at the prices I have named, represent a serious dollar leakage, which should be plugged. Moreover, their coming here definitely penalises our own writers and artists, and at the same time does incalculable harm to the minds and outlook of their readers,”

The discussion also touched on concerns about the quality and content of some material, matters that Parliament would return to a few years later as a moral backlash grew against the gruesome nature and sexuality explicit tone of some American titles, on both sides of the Atlantic, also paving the way here for the development and publication of Eagle comic.

The government rejected the concerns raised by. Skeffington-Lodge, not only explaining their interpretation of the terms of the American Loan Agreement, but Glenvil Hall, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, also noted British authors “find a pretty ready market in the United States for their products, and we should like to see that market increased”. As far as the government was concerned, Britain had the opportunity to export content just as much as publishers would continue to have a restored right to import it, although the Financial Secretary clearly hoped importers would consider what was imported carefully, and not expose the public to too much “trashy stuff”.

It’s worth reading the debate, if only to observe that even back in 1947, the House of Commons was, on occasion, able to slip into social media-style slanging, long before it was ever invented.

Rip Kirby Daily Comic Strip Original Art dated 5th August 1947 (King Features Syndicate, 1947). Via Heritage Auctions

Rip Kirby

First published on 4th March 1946, “Rip Kirby”, which was then syndicated to the Daily Mail, was a private detective strip created by Alex Raymond in 1946, based on a suggestion by King Features editor Ward Greene, who also wrote the early adventures, along with Raymond. After his fatal car accident in 1956, the strip continued written and drawn by others, including John Prentice, Al Williamson and Gray Morrow, running for five decades across the globe.

In the strip, ex-Marine Rip Kirby returns from World War Two and goes to work as a private detective, sometimes accompanied by a frail, balding assistant, Desmond, a former burglar, and, on occasions p, his girlfriend, fashion model Judith Lynne “Honey” Dorian. Her given name and nickname were borrowed from the names of Raymond’s three daughters.

Fred Dickenson took over the writing of the strip after Ward Greene’s death, until the mid-1980s when he was forced to retire for health reasons. Prentice then took over the writing, along with others, keeping the strip going until his own death in 1999. The strip ended with Rip’s retirement on 26th June 1999, a storyline completed by Frank Bolle, but not before Prentice received the National Cartoonists Society Story Comic Strip Award for 1966, 1967 and 1986 for his work on the strip.

Rip Kirby collections from IDW (AmazonUK Affiliate Link)

Bear Alley – British Rip Kirby Collections

The Star newspaper – web site and history

Thomas Cecil “Tom” Skeffington-Lodge – Wikipedia

Thomas Cecil “Tom” Skeffington-Lodge – Obituary

Categories: British Comics - Newspaper Strips, Creating Comics, downthetubes Comics News, downthetubes News, Features, US Comics

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1 reply

  1. A thought provoking piece. I wonder if Glenvil Hall considered Rip Kirby, out of all the other imported material, “trashy”? Or who decided what was “acceptable”. The comment about Kirby “who battles with gangsters every morning in the Daily Mail” suggests they were unaware of Buck Ryan, although, given Ryan’s popularity, it seems unlikely. So our heroes battling crime and gangsters is ok, but these Yanks coming over here in their big cars, isn’t.
    How things have changed. Thanks for the insight.

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