New book, “Harmsworth’s Comic Paper Rivals” reveals early British comic competitors

Harmsworth's Comic Paper Rivals - Cover (Alan Clark, 2023)

Early British comics publishing, including titles such as Ally Sloper, Funny Cuts and 1930s boys adventure title, SCOOPS, are in the spotlight in Harmsworth’s Comic Paper Rivals, a new book from leading comics archivist Alan Clark, just arrived at the downthetubes dungeon.

This limited edition, not-for-profit book is available now direct from Alan, alongside limited stock of some of his earlier titles, including Ally Sloper – His Life & Times and Comic Papers Between the Wars, the latter two-volume project available as a two-item set.

As we’ve previously noted, Alan’s diligence in covering the early period of the British comics industry period is legendary among comic researchers, and these short run books sell out quickly. Leafing through this new book, I have a feeling this a publication that may sell out faster than others, simply because of the breadth of fascinating content, a small amount sourced from hard to find earlier books about comics, such as The World of Frank Richards, published in 1975, by W.O.G. Lofts and Derek Adley, for example.

24-year old publishing whiz-kid, Alfred Harmsworth, who would go on to become a British newspaper and publishing magnate, and 1st Viscount Northcliffe, published his hugely successful Comic Cuts on 17th May 1890. More comic papers were to follow, and, inevitably, he soon had his rivals, the main ones featured in this book, along with an opening introduction about Harmsworth himself.

Harmsworth's Comic Paper Rivals - Sample Pages (Alan Clark, 2023)

Various artists and writers are also given brief but informative profiles, including William Giles Baxter and Alfred Gray, who both drew for Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday; artist Thomas Arthur Browne, (aka Tom Browne), who created “Weary Willy and Tired Tim” for Chips, two of the most famous early characters in British comics; Arthur Hyde Clarke (A.H. Clarke), artist on Funny Wonder and The Halfpenny Comic; artist Charles Genge, who had work published in a variety of comics published by Trapp Holmes and would later become a leading light in Britain’s post-impressionist movement; writer Charles Harold St. John Hamilton, who chose a career in fiction and was successful from the start, who, as Frank Richards, shaped the early adventures of Bill Bunter; Sidney Charles Hook (S. Charles Hook), one of the most popular boys’ story paper writers of his era; Will Spurrier, whose credits include “Parker P.C.”, played on stage and screen by Charles Austin, for Funny Cuts; D. Taylor, who worked on Larks!; professional painter Oliver Edgar Veal, who subsidised his work with contributions to the comic papers, including Larks!; artist Ernest Webb; writer Reginald Wray; and many, many more.

Harmsworth's Comic Paper Rivals - Sample Pages (Alan Clark, 2023)

First off the block was Funny Cuts, issued just eight weeks later on 12th July 1890.  Like Comic Cuts, it featured not only the single picture joke but also early style picture strips. Funny Cuts was published by the firm of Trapps Holmes (George Trapps and George Holmes) from their offices located adjacent to those of another already well-established rival, James Henderson. It proved to have staying power: the title ran for 1566 issues until 1920.

Enterprising publisher James Henderson, another rival, who founded James Henderson & Sons, was an astute businessman, already well established with his successful Funny Folks, who always had his canny Scottish eye open for opportunities to increase his market share. His other titles included Big Comic, Comic Life, Lot-O-Fun, Scraps and Sparks.

Harmsworth's Comic Paper Rivals - Sample Pages (Alan Clark, 2023)
Harmsworth's Comic Paper Rivals - Sample Pages (Alan Clark, 2023)

Gilbert Dalziel was a scion of the family of wood-engraving royalty, the Brothers Dalziel. He was possessed of a remarkable marketing talent, bristled with innovative ideas and, to boot, a sure-footed businessman. He not only made the family’s periodical publishing arm successful, he also created the legendary Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday.  

Harmsworth's Comic Paper Rivals - Sample Pages (Alan Clark, 2023)
Harmsworth's Comic Paper Rivals - Sample Pages (Alan Clark, 2023)
Harmsworth's Comic Paper Rivals - Sample Pages (Alan Clark, 2023)

George Newnes was the acknowledged father of popular journalism whose publishing empire started with Tit-Bits in 1881 and which mushroomed into national (and international) fame and success.  

C. Arthur Pearson was a considerable force to be reckoned with too.  His drive and determination made his success appear inevitable. Pearson’s business acumen and ideas combined with philanthropy has earned him a special place in publishing history.  

Harmsworth's Comic Paper Rivals - Sample Pages (Alan Clark, 2023)

T. Murray Ford may well have been an outlier but nevertheless was typical of several small entrepreneurs who took part in the comic paper boom.  

Several of these magnificent Victorians, like Harmsworth, issued other publications besides comic papers too; and various examples of these have been included in Harmsworth’s Comic Paper Rivals, to give an idea of the extent of their extraordinary output.

All in all, this looks to be a fascinating insight into early comics history, and I’m looking forward to a longer read!

John Freeman

Buy Harmsworth’s Comic Paper Rivals here from Alan Clark via eBay | A5 non-profit, limited edition book | 314 pages

Well-illustrated with many rare titles pictured.  Approximately 31,000 words in total.

BY THE SAME AUTHOR (and also on eBAY) the following:


• COMIC PAPERS BETWEEN THE WARS 1919-1939 (Two book set)

LAUGHS OF A NATION  The publications of Gerald G. Swan

Categories: British Comics, British Comics - Books, Comics, downthetubes Comics News, downthetubes News, Features, Reviews

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