I am not a connoisseur of 1920s comics. The ones I know about are the big American strips, such as Herriman’s Krazy Kat and McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. When I read in comics histories about the great exponents of the adventure strip – cartoonists like Hal Foster and Milton Caniff – those histories invariably point to Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs as the first adventure comic strip. Begun in the USA in 1924 as a daily gag strip about a shop assistant, Wash Tubbs soon broke its boundaries when Tubbs ran off to join the circus, and went on to have adventures in exotic locations. However, a visitor to the Cartoon Museum brought to our attention a different contender for the title of first adventure comic strip – and it’s British. Asger Pedersen is from Denmark, and he dropped into the Museum one recent Saturday with a tale to tell about Britain’s first adventure serial comic strip, Rob the Rover, which predated Wash Tubbs by some four years.
Rob the Rover was created by Walter Henry Booth and first appeared in Puck, the weekly comic published by Amalgamated Press, on 15 May 1920. It continued until 1940, with Booth assisted on the strip at times by Hugh Stanley White (who was later credited with creating Britain’s first science fiction strip Ian on Mu in Mickey Mouse Weekly), and Vincent Daniel. Billed as ‘The picture story of a brave boy who was all alone in the world’, Rob the Rover starts with Rob being found, amnesiac and adrift at sea, by a passing fisherman called Dan, who takes him in. They go on to travel all over the world together having thrilling, often aviation-based, adventures.
Rob the Rover by Walter Booth. Taken from Fanadventuras Special : Rob the Rover Volume 1.
Mr Pedersen kindly donated to the Museum two volumes of a series of collected Rob the Rover strips in English, produced by Portugese fanzine Fanadventuras Special, featuring parts 1 and 2 of ‘The Flying Fish Saga’ from 1937. In the story, Rob and Dan meet Professor Seymour and his daughter Joan and help save the Professor’s wonder invention from spies. The invention glories in the name of ‘the submarplane’ – an aeroplane that can also travel underwater. This leads, with barely a pause for rest, to jungle action, desert adventure, sunken treasure galleons and a narrow escape from a forest fire, amongst other escapades.
The ‘submarplane’, from Rob the Rover by Walter Booth. Taken from Fanadventuras Special : Rob the Rover Volume 1.
The reproduction quality is variable but often surprisingly good, revealing Booth to be a fine draughtsman with a densely-hatched style and a clear storytelling technique. As was usual with Amalgamated Press titles, there is text underneath each panel, but only infrequent speech balloons, as the suspicion was that balloons led to illiteracy. Booth was a versatile artist who carried out thorough research to ensure the settings in Rob the Rover were accurate. He was as comfortable drawing humour strips as adventure work, his other strips including Professor Potash in Big Comic and Jingle’s Jolly Circus on the cover of Puck.
Jingle’s Jolly Circus by Walter Booth, from Puck, 8 July 1933.
Rob the Rover was very popular, but in 1940 the wartime paper shortage forced Amalgamated to absorb Puck into Sunbeam. The strip continued in Sunbeam for only another two weeks before that title also succumbed to the paper shortage. But that wasn’t the end of the story. Rob was also popular overseas, having been reprinted in Portugal, Italy and as far away as Uruguay. As Mr Pedersen advised when he visited the Museum, it was especially popular in Scandinavia, where it was called (in Danish) Willy på eventyr – The Adventures of Willy. When the British material ended, it was continued in Denmark in the publication Familie Journalen until 1977. The first artist was Harry Nielsen, who drew the strip from 1941 until 1947. There was then a break in publication until 1956, when it began again, now drawn by Tage Andersen and written by Aage Grauballe.
Mr Pedersen also kindly donated to the Museum a volume of the reprinted Willy på eventyr as drawn by Andersen. This book is a good looking, professional affair, published in colour on good paper by Forlaget Fabel. It features strips from 1975 and 1976, where the stories have taken a more fantastic, science fiction direction, with Willy investigating the Bermuda triangle. It still eschews speech balloons in favour of captions, but the layout is more varied and dynamic and the art has a slick, American look, reminding me of the EC artist Al Williamson.
Taken from Willy på eventyr: Onkel Hans forsvundet i Bermuda-trekanten, drawn by Tage Andersen and written by Aage Grauballe. Forlaget Fabel 2011.
Mr Pedersen is chairman of Willy-Centret, a Willy fan-club that worked with Forlaget Fabel on their reprint books. He is planning a centenary exhibition in Copenhagen for 2020, focussing on the two Danish artists Nielsen and Andersen, but also showcasing Booth’s original strip. We are grateful to him for bringing Rob the Rover to the Cartoon Museum’s attention, and wish him every success with the exhibition.
Cover of Willy på eventyr: Onkel Hans forsvundet i Bermuda-trekanten, Forlaget Fabel 2011.
A member of Walter Booth’s family maintains a website about him, containing much interesting biographical information: http://walter-booth.webs.com/
Mr Pedersen’s website: http://www.willy-centret.dk