Update 20200322: This post was first posted two years ago, making the issue in question now exactly one hundred and one years old!
Merry & Bright was launched on 22 October 1910, an 8-page weekly published by Amalgamated Press. Black-and-white, approximately 27.5cm by 36cm (10.8″ by 14.2″). It was effectively cancelled on 31 March 1917 (issue #337), but was reborn on 7 May 1917 merged with The Favourite Comic (21 January 1911 to 31 March 1917, 324 issues). As Merry & Bright the Favourite Comic it ran for a further 928 issues before being absorbed into Butterfly on 19 January 1935.
This copy is (currently) the oldest comic in my collection, Merry & Bright the Favourite Comic issue #103 (New Series) and dated 22 March 1919, making it 99 years old today! It cost 1½ pence, back in the days when the average annual wage in the UK was £161… hold on, pre-decimal money is hard to work out… £161 = 3,220 shillings = 38,640 pennies. Divide that by fifty-two, and we see that the average income was 742.07 pence per week, enough to buy 495.38 copies of Merry & Bright (In 2016, the average annual wage in the UK was £27,600. Or 2,760,000 pennies. That’s 53,076.92 pennies each week, enough to buy 208.14 copies of 2000AD, at its 2016 price of 255 pennies).
So, the first page gives us “Menagerie Mike and his Troup of Performing Animals.” I won’t actually show you the unblurred version of the cover because it is massively, massively racist. Like most comic-strips of its time, it’s in what folks of my generation often think of as “Rupert-style” (after the Rupert Bear comic strip, though this comic actually pre-dates Rupert by a year and a half): aside from a few tiny speech balloons the pictures and text are separate: the text describes what’s happening in the pictures and supplies the dialogue. So they’re not quite comic-strips as such: they’re closer to being illustrated stories.
Page two of this issue of Merry & Bright is given over to “The Boys of St. Catherine’s” by John Lewdrock, a text story about a boarding school. It doesn’t say what chapter this is, but it appears to have been running for some time. Solid text with only two illustrations. It’s all tuck-shops and Important Cricket Matches and the like: very Billy Bunter, including the expected classism of the time. Plus some casual racism: among the list of characters is Solomon Hyams, the money-lender.
Page three is a collection of cartoons: three four-panel strips, and six single-panel jokes of the “I say, I say!” variety (best of the lot: “That man is the most restless person on earth!” “Yes, you’re right. Even his bills are unsettled!”).
Another text story fills page four: “The Motor Incident” (“A yarn told by Paul Denton, the detective who conducted the case.”). Three smallish illustrations don’t help much to break up the wall of text, but at least the story is “Complete in this Number” – because this was back in the days when “number” meant “issue” (as well as meaning “dress” and “song” for reasons that probably made a lot of sense at the time).
Page five… Oh dear. Another full-page comic-strip. This one is called “Saucy Sambo, and his Piccaninny Pete.” (I feel queasy just typing that title.) Truly horrible stuff and best skipped-over.
Pages six and seven: more text stories. “Jolly Jack Johnson” takes up most of page six for a stand-alone story (this week, it’s “Jack and the Auctioneer”), and tucked into the bottom fifth of the page is “The Editor’s Weekly Letter to his Readers” in which the editor (who signs his name “The Editor”) tells us how great the new strip “Menagerie Mike” is, and also pushes the companion publication The Butterfly (Hah! Little does he know that in only sixteen more years a revamped version of Butterfly will utterly consume Merry & Bright!).
Text story “Nurse Alice Gray” – about a nurse, I’m guessing – takes up the majority of page seven. Again, this is a stand-alone story. Filling up the rest of the space on the page is “Quips and Cranks” in which the two characters (Quip and Crank) banter back and forth. Solid text, the best joke being that Quip’s wife has just given birth to their first child, a girl, so they are going to call her Margarine… “Because we haven’t any but-her (butter).” I love it when vintage comics explain their jokes!
The eighth and last page is similar to page three: a collection of short strips, only two of which are named: “Sleepy Sidney – Our Never-Work Office Boy” and “Sheerluck Bones – The Dud Detective.”
There are no ads, which is both odd and disappointing (I love vintage ads: “Merson’s Crodwrangler – The Finest Lead and Asbestos Daily Tonic for your Newborn, as approved by His Majesty’s Eighth-Left Brigadoon Fusiliers, Zanzibar.”)
Overall… It’s hard to figure out who this was aimed at. The jokes are corny and mostly juvenile, but the text stories have fairly sophisticated use of language.
It was a different time, clearly. Horrible as much of this comic is through our eyes, it’s still a fascinating glimpse at life at the ground-level ninety-nine years ago, from an angle you just don’t get from your P.G. Wodehouse and W. Somerset Maugham novels.