Tuesday, May 20, 2014

The World's First Comic Hero

Readers of this blog have probably noticed that recently I've been getting more and more interested in older comics, particularly those published before 1940. This new interest led for my curiosity as to who was the world's first recurring comic character, so I decided to find out. I began my search, rather lazily, by typing into Google 'World's first comic character' which, though a few links, led me to the Yellow Kid, a character I had already heard of. The Yellow Kid first appeared in Joseph Pulitzer's New York World in 1895, and is credited not only as the World's first comic hero (a term I shall use instead of 'first recurring character') but also as the first newspaper strip. I realised without doing any further research that he could immediately be beaten by Ally Sloper, who first appeared in Judy (a comic magazine) on 14th August 1867 alongside his pal Ikey (Issac) Mo. Ally went on to be one of the most famous characters in Britain and even went on to have a popular weekly comic in his name, which ran for over 30 years from 1884 - 1916. 

A copy of Ally Sloper's Half Holiday
from 1892. I covered this comic blog a
couple of years ago on this blog.

For a short while I was certain that another contender for the honour of the World’s first comic hero were the two unnamed apprentices who appeared in The Comick Magazine, subtitled “The Compleat Library: of mirth, humour, wit, gaiety, and entertainment. By the greatest wits of all ages and nations. Enriched with Hogarth’s celebrated humourous comical and moral prints.”. It was first published on 1st April 1786 by a Mr. Harrison of London, and folded less than a year later on 2nd January 1797, producing approximately 41 issues. Each monthly edition of the magazine, which was otherwise completely text, came with a coloured plate as mentioned in the subtitle, and they came together to form a series called ‘Industry and Idleness’. Each plate showed part of an adventure of the two unnamed apprentices, which, when put together, created a very rough story, an early attempt at a sort of comic strip, but not really the comic heroes I'm looking for as they are more separate pictures than a running character. They were painted by William Hogarth in 1747. William had died in 1764, some years before The Comick Magazine was first published.

Industy and Idleness, by William Hogarth.

You may have heard of a publication called The Glasgow Looking Glass, a contender for the world's first comic and therefore there was also a possibility that it might feature the world's first comic hero. The Glasgow Looking Glass ran for five issues from 11th June 1825 - 3rd April 1826, before turning into The Northern Looking Glass. It was soon cancelled not because it was unpopular, but because the publisher (John Watson) and artist (William Heath) made too many enemies from the people they mocked. There turned out to be just one strip in the publication that appeared in more than one issue. It was entitled The History of a Coat, which followed a coat through its history. It appeared in issues #2 - #5, with the coat being the recurring character. However, whether or not a coat can be accepted as a comic hero is debatable, so I decided to find something more solid.

The first issue of The Glasgow
Looking Glass.

That brought me forwards to 1850, to the pages of The Penny Illustrated News (not to be confused with The Penny Illustrated Paper). Launched on 27th October 1849 by publisher William Strange, it lasted until 5th April 1851. The first issue of interest, Vol. I No. 18 is perhaps one of the most important general publications in history. Dated 23rd February 1850 it not only introduced the world the newspaper strip but also the first recurring comic character – Mr. Green. The full title was ‘The Sentimental & Dramatic Adventures Of Mr. Green’, and it appeared on page four of this paper (numbered page 140 because when all issues were bound this would be the page number) by a sadly unaccredited illustrator, although my best guess would be that it was John Leech. Mr. Green, often referred to as ‘Mr. G’ for short, is 45 years of age, single, has a passion for music and acting and has a cat called Tom, so quite a bit can be said for the character despite his short run. The end of the first strip ended with the line: “(To be continued.)”, and readers were treated to another two adventures in the life of Mr. Green. The Penny Illustrated News was a weekly paper that came out on a Saturday (in 1850 the government banned the transmission and delivery of letters on a Sunday, but this law lasted just a few weeks) so the second part appeared in Vol. I No. 19 dated 2nd March 1850, and the third part in Vol. I No. 20, dated 9th March 1850. This third strip also featured the familiar “(To be continued.)” line at the bottom yet no more adventures were published. The story as a whole followed Mr. Green’s love for the girl under the yellow bonnet, although the third episode is rather strange because although it starts with him coming back from searching for this woman it turns to him studying magnetism and electricity. Whether or not any more stories were written and drawn I can’t say, but I know the strip received mixed emotions because I have found two separate letters regarding his adventures. Although the actual letters from the readers don’t appear, the responses do, for a number of responses from the editor, William Strange, were published in each edition of the paper in a section called ‘The Correspondents’ on the back page (they began in Vol. I No. I, with the first one rather harshly reading “C.S – Your sketches are not suitable to our columns: they want originality”).  The first letter regarding Mr. Green’s adventures appeared in Vol. I No. 27, dated 27th April 1850. It read: “J.Y. – You wish CAMERA SKETCHES, instead of such comicalities as the pictured “Adventures of Mr. Green;” a few passages of which appeared in this Journal some time ago. We recommence with a view of Lomond Hill. We join you in opinion that as much can be learned from comic writing as comic drawing, and we wish to devote the expense incurred by engraving to subjects of a permanent character.”. A second response appeared some weeks later in Vol. I No. 35, dated 22nd June 1850. Although much shorter this time, it read simply: “A.Z. – We cannot recall Mr. Green’s adventures.”.

Now, I know you're all ready to see these strips, so here they are, all three of them! Enjoy! And as always, click on the images and then again to view in full size.

No. 1

No. 2

No. 3

So there you have it, the World's first newspaper strip and the competition for the World's first recurring comic character, which is between a coat and a man named Mr. Green. Which do you think deserves the title?


I don't normally include a bibliography but for this post I feel it would be helpful for anybody wishing to research this further.

I would like to thank Laurence Grove of the University of Glasgow for information regarding 'The Glasgow Looking Glass' and 'The History of A Coat' strip.

I would like to thank Sarah Wheale of the Bodleian Library in Oxford for helping me with information regarding 'The Comick Magazine'.

I would also like to thank Bill Emery of the British Library for help with information regarding The Penny Illustrated News.

Further resources:

John Leech, His Life and His Work, 2 Vols, 1891, William Powell Frith

The Penny Illustrated News No. 18.-Vol. I. Saturday, February 23, 1850., page no. 137
The Sentimental and Dramatic Adventures Of Mr. Green Episode no. 1, Page 140

The Penny Illustrated News No. 19.-Vol. I. Saturday, March 2, 1850., page no. 145
The Sentimental and Dramatic Adventures Of Mr. Green no. 2, Page 148

The Penny Illustrated News No. 19.-Vol. I. Saturday, March 9, 1850., page no. 153
The Sentimental and Dramatic Adventures Of Mr. Green no. 3, Page 156

The Penny Illustrated News No. 27.-Vol. I. Saturday, April 27, 1850., page no. 209
To Correspondents, Response to letter regarding Mr. Green, page no. 216

The Penny Illustrated News No. 35.-Vol. I. Saturday, June 22, 1850, page no. 279
To Correspondents, Response to letter regarding Mr. Green, page 286


Kid said...

George, further to your interest in the ICJ, more information (and downloadable issues) can be found at http://comicbookplus.com - give it a look-see.

George Shiers said...

Thanks for the link, Kid :)