Childhood’s Nightmare Creatures
I’ve posted a little before about strange childhood books – culled from my weekly column in the Independent, ‘Invisible Ink’, which just hit its 300th column today and will appear as its own book at the end of next year – but here’s a further exploration of childhood creepies.
I tried searching for a book called ‘Giant-Land’ and finally received the edition my family would have inherited in the 1930s. Created by Richard Quittenton under the pen-name of Roland Quiz, it’s one of four Tim Pippin novels first published in 1874 that continued to be reprinted until the end of WWII. The horrors of the war fill these pages as a gallery of grotesques duke it out for supremacy of the kingdom, and Tiny Tim stands faces villains like the Giant Body-Snatcher (above). The stories are clearly spun from old English fairy tales, and at one point a naked and sensual Queen Mab (first mentioned in ‘Romeo and Juliet’) poses astride a severed head. As always in such volumes, the villains are the most colourful and memorable characters, but it’s the Hassidic Giant Greed whose description disturbs most, appearing in drawings which are sinister and clearly anti-Semitic.
British artists and writer-cartoonists rarely got the love and respect of their American counterparts. In the 20th century many worked for DC Thomson, the secretive Scottish publisher famous for producing the Beano and Dandy comics. Newspapers rarely allowed artists to retain the rights to their work. Often the original art went missing, ‘borrowed’ by members of staff, never to be returned. Comics in Britain were considered ephemeral fun for kiddies, and were never accorded the stature that graphic art reached in Europe or America.
Ken Reid became the foremost children’s illustrator of his period. DC Thomson invited him to join The Beano, and in 1953 he created ‘Rodger The Dodger’ for them. Although he had been writing his own strips, Reid was now teamed with a writer called Walter Fearne and they produced the wonderfully surreal series ‘Jonah’, about a goofy, idiot sailor who weekly managed to sink a ship in ever-increasingly elaborate ways. The script picked up echoes from the British obsession with incompetent sailors, especially the hit radio series ‘The Navy Lark’, in which vessels constantly ran aground. Soon Reid’s drawings were so bizarre and dense with contraptions and explosions that he managed to cram up to thirty panels on a page that usually held nine.
Reid’s imagery grew more grotesque with strips like ‘Frankie Stein’ and the often deranged ‘Dare-A-Day Davy’, featuring an interactive character whose actions were determined by reader’s suggestions. The episodes became so disturbing that they were eventually censored, and one was banned from children’s comics entirely.
Other childhood artists were drawing strange creatures. Everyone knows that Enid Blyton created Noddy and Big Ears (can we still call him that?) but peculiar woodland hybrids have a long British history. In 1920, Mary Tourel began Rupert the Bear in the Daily Express. The object was to use the character to lure readers away from the Mirror and the Mail. Rupert was originally a brown bear but became white to save on printing ink. As with Noddy in Toyland, the other characters surrounding Rupert are vaguely sinister elf-things, animals and trolls, including one particularly nightmarish being called Raggety, who was made out of bits of branch. Although these tales were always fantastical by nature they had a grounding in English rural culture; their countryside was that of Devon, Sussex and Snowdonia. The Daily Express never returned original artwork and the archive went missing – file copies were not much respected in the early days – so that collectors are now paying around £6,000 for a full set of annuals.
Sheila Hodgetts was the creator of another odd creature; Toby Twirl was an upright pig in baggy dungarees, with human hands and feet. His sidekick was Eli the Elephant, dressed like an English teacher, and in a geographically unlikely twist they hung around with a penguin. Like Rupert, they spoke in rhyming couplets and lived in an attractive town with an inn, signposts and a clocktower, yet were surrounded by wizards, mermen, elves and Arcimboldo-like beings. Defining these characters and their settings are many beautifully evocative drawings by Edward Jeffrey. He excels in visits to enchanted isles, and there’s a trip to Candytown which conjures up the strange pastel tones of cheap postwar confectionary.
Closer to the present, Elizabeth Beresford created the Wombles, who looked like bears crossbred with moles and gained their name from her daughter’s mispronunciation of ‘Wimbledon’. They cleared up rubbish on Wimbledon Common and spent a lot of time tidying before heading off around the world. Beresford came from a literary background, and blended her own memories of relatives and places with her characters. The Wombles’ theme song, ‘Underground Overground, Wombling Free’ became a surprise seventies’ hit and remains a very annoying earworm. These creatures were timeless and non-combative, managing to have a good time without constantly duffing up villains and saving the world from destruction. The Wombles were ecologically ahead of the game, but Rupert was disastrously updated to trainers.
What we can see across the century is how children’s characters gradually lost their edge and became cuter and more harmless, until we reach a point where committees decide what may and may not be seen by children; which has its good and bad sides.