Myriad Editions have very kindly sent me an advance copy of their new title Marie Duval, a superb study of the pioneering but near-forgotten female artist behind the creation of the first “breakout” British comic characters, Ally Sloper. I can definitely recommend this title for anyone curious not just about the work of women in comics but the origins of comics as we now know them in Britain, too.
Marie Duval was the pseudonym Emile de Tessier, partner of Charles H. Ross (they weren’t married, but did have a son, Charles Jr), who between them created the first recurring comic strip character, Ally Sloper, in 1867 for the magazine Judy. A groundbreaking Victorian female cartoonist, she produced a wide range of work, depicting an urban, often working class milieu, but has been largely forgotten.
This is a book for pleasure, the first to celebrate her life and work in any major way, and it’s a wonderful collection of early cartoons that documents this little-known creator’s work – astonishingly, all created in a 15-year period. Combining fascinating insight with honest and appraisal, we’re treated to an extraordinary journey into the world of late Victorian humour, compiled by Simon Greenan, Roger Sabin and Julian Waite.
For me, this new book succeeds in offering an insight into what did it meant to be a woman working in the man’s world of cartooning in the late nineteenth century – no easy task, given how little is known of Duval (there is no known image of her), and the subsequent erasure of her involvement in the creation of characters such as Ally Sloper by male-dominated publishers after her untimely early death.
(Ally Sloper gained his own weekly publication, Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday, in 1884, and a new artist – William Baxter, who seems to have more recognition than Duval. When Baxter died in 1888, W. Fletcher Thomas took over until the end of the 19th Century, superceded by C.H. Chapman, who drew it until the closure of the comic in 1916).
A unique, pioneering, innovative and highly entertaining visual journalist, cartoonist and illustrator, Duval’s work appeared in serial magazines such as Judy, a rival to Punch, and books at a time when the identity of the artist, in Victorian England, was in radical flux.
She seems to have had an incredible career and not just as an artist. Both a stage actress as well as an artist, Duval was uniquely placed to take advantage of the first appearance of a mass leisure culture by contributing to the weekly magazines that combined current affairs and theatrics with a focus on urban life.
Given she was working at a time when women were not supposed to create or even to participate in public life – and certainly not meant to be either comic or professional, This overview of her life is long overdue. Her comic strips were not only pioneering in terms of what we have come to call “comics”, but present a vernacular comedy that frequently undercuts and supercedes the work of her male contemporaries.
Offering a positively glorious visual account of the work of Duval as she struggled and succeeded in creating a new urban visual culture, we’re also treated to an enticing glimpse of the exciting, strange and world-changing media environment of London in the last part of the nineteenth century.
You can’t help but be swept along as Duval takes swipes at the art world of the time with the same acerbic insight she affords comment on technological change, while also noting how little the human condition has improved for all society’s mechanical miracles. There’s a resonance to her work with today’s fast changing world that deserves study.
Those of you intrigued by this artist and her work may like to know that much of it features online in the Marie Duval Archive – but interesting though that is, it’s no replacement for this wonderful book. Recommended!
With thanks to Simon Grennan for the images of Marie Duval’s work