Childhood’s Nightmare Creatures

London

Tiny Tim and Body Snatcher

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.

davy2

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.

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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.

10 comments on “Childhood’s Nightmare Creatures”

  1. Jo W says:

    Ah, Toby Twirl! My brother’s favourite books, so much so that he still looks for them when he’s out rummaging at car boot sales. I had instructions from him to keep an eye out at charity shops I visit, but the books have increased a lot in price in recent years.

  2. Reuben says:

    It seems to me criminal that so little (technically none) of Ken Reid’s work is in print. Crying out for a collection from someone I’d have thought.

  3. Vincent C says:

    Congratulations on your 300th column.

    May I impose on you to explain what you mean by “will appear as its own book at the end of next year”? Is this to be a new collection of Invisible Ink in addition to the 2012?

  4. Roger says:

    The thing about Jonah in his later years was that he never actually needed to do anything to cause disaster – the panic that ensued when sailors recognised him was enough on its own…
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lq-fgj6rG7Q for a possible cure for ‘Underground Overground, Wombling Free’. Or two soundworms instead of one, perhaps.

  5. admin says:

    Hi Vincent –
    The little book of Invisible Inks was done three years ago as a limited run simply because I like the publisher – the next time it will be from a big publishing house and will feature the 300 writers, together with essays.

  6. Vivienne says:

    I do love Invisible Ink, so I’m glad I can discard all my bits of paper and buy the collection. but could someone tell me where I can find the time to read all this? And never mind about Big Ears, what about Noddy, who paid for his milk by allowing the milkman to nod his head – surely an exploitation of a disability?

  7. Vincent C says:

    Thank you for the explanation. I look forward to the new enlarged edition, if that is the correct characterization.

  8. Peter Dixon says:

    Worzel Gummidge was surely one of the finest ‘nightmare’ creations ever. The TV series with (with John Pertwee unrecognisable as Dr. Who) was delightful – Worzel and Aunt Sally are, by turns, pathetic, lying, gullible, greedy, needy and have no idea of the consequences of their selfish actions (quite like adults really). Yet they are funny and real and are usually forgiven at the end, with a nice cup ‘o’ tea and a slice of cake thrown in.

    Another great character was ‘Catweazel’ played on TV by the wonderful Geoffrey Bayldon. He was a grubby, bearded wizard who lived in an abandoned water tower and had travelled in time from the middle ages. Constantly astonished by the modern world he got into lots of scrapes (people don’t have ‘scrapes’ any more – they have ‘incidents’) and generally behaved as mad as a hatter who has lost his hat.

    Interestingly both characters were befriended, and viewed through the eyes of, a boy and a girl of about 10 or 11.
    Try to throw that into a modern day TV pitch and see how far you’d get.

  9. Wayne Mook says:

    Ken Reid is wonderful, Jasper the Grasper a Victorian miser is an unlikely character of his. Savoy Books released is very early Fudge, not quite at his best then.

    Leo Baxendale (Grimly Fiendish and Beryl the Peril.) and the other DC artist & writers are hardly known. His later stuff is grand.

    Wayne.

  10. Alan Morgan says:

    Youngest step-daughter (with her many and varied challenging foibles) is nonetheless turning into a reader, and Rupert annuals helped with that. My own eldest daughter has the Womble books, inherited down, which pass a resemblance to the tele series. Likewise there are a number of Beresford’s other books for children in the heap, usually to do with children discovering magic, albeit in a manner frothier than Alan Garner. It’s Artemis Fowl that has her in the reading grasp right now though.

    They’re both a wee bit short of Calabash for now. But soon, soon…

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