Comic Cuts was, for a time, synonymous with comics in general. Indeed, no one is likely to be hanged for suggesting that it’s the source of the word “comic” when applied to the medium that today we call comic-books and comic-strips: Comic Cuts was originally a compilation of amusing cartoons taken from other publications… that is, “comic” (or humorous) material “cut” from elsewhere.
Today we’re looking at issue #1542 of Comic Cuts, which has a cover-date of November 29th, 1919 — exactly ninety-nine years ago today, if you’re reading this on the day this article was uploaded. (If this is feeling oddly familiar, it’s because back in March I reviewed issue #109 of the new series of Merry & Bright the Favourite Comic, dated March 22nd 1919, which can be found here.)
Comic Cuts was launched in May 1890 — that’s the cover of issue #1 on the right — so by issue #1542 it had been running for over twenty-nine years, and even though that seems a heck of a long time these days, it’s less than half-way through the publication’s life: it was finally put to rest on 12th September 1953 with issue #3006 at the age of sixty-three years and five months, earning it fourth place on the chart of longest-lived British Comics. Along the way Comic Cuts absorbed The Golden Penny in 1928, Jolly Comic in 1939 and Larks in 1940. It was absorbed into The Knock-Out Comic which continued to run for another nine and a half years before it was swallowed up by the action comic Valiant (see The Eagle Family Tree for more info on the relationship between all these titles, and many more!)
Comic Cuts #1542 originally cost 1½d (the first issue was only ½d, and the final issue cost 3d). In the British culture of the time “d” was short for “penny” (and for its plural “pennies” and its other plural “pence”) because the British just couldn’t get enough of Latin, the long-dead language of the Romans who called their pennies “denarii,” hence the abbreviation to “d.” The British pound symbol “£” is really just as an “L” showing off in its Sunday clothes, an abbreviation of “Libra” which itself is an abbreviation of “Libra Pondo” which is the Latin for “Pound.” The “£” symbol only represents a pound in money terms, of course, not a pound in weight terms, which was abbreviated to “Lb” (and “Lbs” for the plural form) and of course pound weights were commonly used in weighing scales, and the symbol for Libra in the astrological zodiac is a weighing scales. There. Glad I got that cleared up.
For much of its life Comic Cuts was an eight-page tabloid publication, the pages being 10½ inches by 14¼ inches (about 270 x 358mm), blackish ink on newsprint paper. Just like the aforementioned Merry and Bright, the comics within aren’t quite what today’s hip, with-it, up-to-the-month modern groovy folk might consider to be comics… they’re closer to illustrated stories. That’s the key difference: in modern comics the drawings carry the tale, but in these prototype versions the drawings almost always only serve to illustrate the narrative. Each picture is accompanied by an explanatory caption, and in-panel balloons are few, and have little direct impact on the story.
The front cover, AKA page 1.
At the very top we get reminders for the forthcoming Christmas issues of Comic Cuts and its companion title Chips, then the masthead featuring the logo (a fairly bland logo in an era when others really were works of beauty), and then the first comic-strip, which goes by the lengthy title of “The Side-Splitting Adventures of Jolly Tom, the Merry Menagerie Man.”
In this episode, which is told in the form of a letter from Tom to the editor, Tom is bringing a small cage to the zoo when he spots an escaped lion. He climbs into the cage to protect himself, and then grabs the lion’s tail in the hope that he can stop it from eating some children. Unfortunately, the lion does not take to this and runs away, dragging Tom with him. The cage smashes against a wall and breaks open, but Tom still won’t let go. He swings the lion around by the tail smashing it against the wall. Then before the lion can recover, Tom finds a bicycle that’s missing its front wheel, cycles over the lion and pins the bike’s forks over its tail, trapping it long enough to bring in a new cage. (Y’know, I have a feeling that this isn’t a true story.)
The art is cute and expressive, and the text — I estimate it’s about 630 words — is liberally laced with puns, so it makes for a quite sweet tale, though hardly side-splitting.
Pages 2 & 3
Man, there’s a lot of text there! I’m not going to read it all: — these days I don’t have the time, the inclination, the patience or the eyesight. “Abbot’s Rock” is a new serial starting in this issue, and the list of “Chief Characters” at the start mentions “smugglers” and “lighthouse” and “the mark of the Octopus,” plus the caption for the illustration in the middle refers to “a line of cowled monks” so we can pretty safely guess that it’s all about smugglers and a secret society. At the very bottom of the page we get a tiny “To be continued” box.
Hold on while I work out the word-count for this episode… I measured the first ten centimetres and counted 39 lines of text. That’s 3.9 lines per centimetre. “Abbot’s Rock” features 128.1 centimetres of text in total, which gives us about 500 lines. I picked a ten-line chunk that looked fairly representative of the text as a whole (a balanced mix of dialogue and narrative) and it contained exactly 50 words, so we’ll take it that there’s an average of five words per line. Multiplied by 500 lines, that makes this episode somewhere in the region of 2,500 words. If you’re not sure how to judge that, it’s about 2.5 times the length of this article so far.
On page 3 we get an episode of “Tecs All Three!” — “Tec” being an old abbreviation for “Detective.” It’s a little longer than this issue’s episode of “Abbot’s Rock” because it omits the list of characters and the “To be continued” box and it sneakily continues on page 6 for a further 13.5cm. It all adds up to 145.3cm, so a quick estimate (on the assumption that the font and spacing are the same size as the previous story, and I’ve no reason to believe otherwise because they look like they are), that tells me we’ve got about 566 lines, or 2,830 words. (There is a tiny part of me that really wants to actually count all the words just to see how close my estimates are, but it’s losing a battle with a larger part of me that’s telling the first part to get a grip.)
I can’t summon the fortitude to wade through “Tecs All Three!” so instead here’s the foreword for this episode:
Dick Hart, Douglas Banks and “Dinkie” Doone, the three surviving members of the ‘Tecs’ Club, resign their positions in the Police Force, and set out for Mexico to avenge the murder of Rose Chalmers, one of their chums. They have one clue only to work upon — a medallion bearing the curious design of an eagle with a serpent in its beak.
The story tells of the thrilling adventures of the three detectives while engaged in solving the mystery of their chum’s death.
A quick glance through the rest of the text reveals lots of narrative passages ending in exclamation marks — something you rarely find in prose these days — and dialogue along the lines of “Dog of the East, puny indeed is your power of understanding if you think that even your fire-guns can destroy Teonac of the Eagles!” Teonac is a person of Native American origin, and this was published in 1919, so it’s not hard to guess how he’s portrayed, nor how he’s treated by Dick, Dinkie and Dug (the latter being how the writer abbreviates “Douglas” — I’m guessing that no one in editorial picked up on that because they were too busy going “Wait… Dinkie?”).
Pages 4 & 5 — The centre-spread
After two pages of almost solid text, more comics! Hooray! Well, no, not “Hooray” because they’re not great. One of them — “Pussyfoot, the Redskin” — would be considered racially insensitive these days, and another — which I have blurred out in the image above — is very definitely horribly outright racist. That’s “Charlie Chutney and Mickey the Monkey Nut” and that’s all I’m going to say about it.
There are nine multi-panel and five single-panel cartoons on this spread, as well as what looks like a cartoon but is in fact an ad for the “Christmas number” of Chips. The rest are a pretty good representation of most British cartoons and comic-strips of the era: every adult character wears a hat, rich men smoke fat cigars and poor men smoke pipes, and everywhere you turn there are pies cooling on windowsills, happy-go-lucky alcoholic tramps, overweight housewives wearing pinnies and with their hair up in tight buns, prim dowagers peering haughtily through monocles or pince-nez, and angry policemen with thick moustaches shaking their fists at cheekily scampering urchins. You wouldn’t think that Charles Dickens had been dead almost fifty years by this stage.
To give you an example of the level of humour in these cartoons: the narrow strip on the very left of the spread shows a boy leaning out of an upstairs window to tell two men and a boy below that he has a cake and it’s theirs if they can reach it. The two men are carrying trays around their necks: the shorter man climbs onto the tall man’s tray, the boy climbs onto the short man’s tray, and is thus high enough to reach the cake. It’s all summed up with a little caption at the very bottom that reads, “This Takes the Cake!”
Here’s one in its entirety (I tweaked the colours and contrast to make it a little more legible)…
It’s an interesting stage in the evolution of comics: the balloons are useless, only paraphrasing the dialogue that appears in the captions, which tell us all we need to know… Except in the third panel, in which the caption is inadequate — it just does not work without the illustration.
Best gag on the page — and indeed the entire issue — is the very last single-panel cartoon, in which one person asks the other, “What’s the matter? It’s a good joke, isn’t it?” The other person replies, “It’s a very good joke. The first time I heard that joke I laughed til the tears rolled down my bib.”
Pages 6 & 7
Another two walls of text… First up on page 6 is the last few centimetres of “Tecs All Three”, then the editorial, which discusses the upcoming Christmas issue and has a list of winners of a recent competition.
And then we get “The Red Rovers” which boasts a beguiling tagline: “Our Popular Story of Sport, Love, and Life.” (Nice use of the famous Oxford Comma there!) The introductory caption reads, “Being the adventures of Harry Hinton and Paddy Flanagan, of the Red Rovers Professional Football Club; Maggie and Connie of the Cosy Corner, their Sweethearts; William, their Monkey Mascot; and Uncle Joe, the Parrot.” (Excellent use of the lesser-known Wokingham Semi-Colon.)
Sad to say, even with the promise of a monkey and a parrot — there will be hi-jinks of the highest order, you mark my essay — I couldn’t bring myself to read this one, either, but since I’m sure you’re wondering… “The Red Rovers” takes up four fifths of page 6 and a sizeable chunk of page 7, and all that text adds up to 212cm, which is taller than I am wearing my biggest hat and my thickest-soled shoes. At the previous rate of 3.9 lines per centimetre, that gives us 826.8 lines. We’ll round that down to 826, because it’s nearly Christmas, and we end up with an estimated word-count of 4,130.
(This page has been very monochrome so far, so here’s a wee rainbow just to top you up…)
Also on page 7, we get an ad for “Just Me” by Pearl White, a new serial beginning in the contemporaneous edition of the paper Picture Show, of which I have never heard before, and another ad for the first instalment of “Birds of Prey” over in The Jester.
Rounding out the page is “Mi Wurd!”, an entire collum ritten lyke this with menny words misspelled R replaste with lettuce or numb-Rs or homophones 4 humerus effekt. It’s hard 2 rede, and even harder 2 stop riting inn that stile wunce U start.
The vinyl paige — sorry, the final page — of this issue contains three cartoons. The toppest of the three has, as you can see, been blurred out by me. No prizes for guessing why, but if you said “Because it’s massively racist” you’d be right.
Of the others, “The Mulberry Flatites” strip is rather inventive, if you’re willing to completely ignore the laws of physics (without sufficient anchorage a light thing can’t lift a heavier thing, guys, no matter how strong that light thing might be). The four tenants of the Mulberry Flats are delighted to see a quartet of “Slapdabbers” (slang term for decorators) arrive to do up the place, but upon gaining access to the flats, the decorators reveal themselves to really be the landlord and three bailiffs serving eviction notices, presumably for non-payment of rent. Luckily, the landlord and bailiffs are each sitting in an armchair with his back to a window, and even luckilyer than that, the floors of the apartments are hinged at the window side, and they’re all connected to a rope on the other side. The rope stretches up to a pulley on the roof, then down to the ground. The bailiffs obligingly wait in the armchairs long enough for the tenants to run downstairs and pull on the rope, thereby lifting the floors at the non-window side and tipping the bailiffs out through the windows. The final panel shows the tenants happily back inside their homes, chuffed to have gained some free decorating supplies and delighted that the landlord and two of the bailiffs are outside, injured and angry. The third bailiff, the one who had been in the top-most flat and thus fell the furthest, doesn’t appear in that last panel. I think he’s dead.
The final three-panel strip in this issue of Comic Cuts shows a rooster who finds some phonograph records in the trash and uses them as wheels. Yep, that’s the entire thing. No punchline, no repercussions, no gag, no nothin’.
And that’s your lot. As with the issue I reviewed of Merry and Bright, which was published only a few months before this, the combination of tame kid-level jokes with comparatively sophisticated (and dense) text stories makes it hard to see at whom this was aimed. Maybe the audience was the whole family, each member appreciating different aspects?
Well, whoever the intended audience was, given that the stories and captions amount to over 10,000 words of text, when “proper” comics came along a few years later and the text stories disappeared, you didn’t get nearly as much reading-time for your 1½ denarii.
Copies of Comic Cuts from this era aren’t hard to find, nor are they too expensive, and they’re interesting slices of history so worth checking out if you’re a collector… but be warned: some of the strips — like those I’ve blurred — can be very discomforting, especially if you’ve never seen their like before. On the positive side, however, they are evidence that while our present-day culture’s attitudes to gender and race are still very imbalanced, we actually have come a long way in the past ninety-nine years.