“I have a determination to establish the British comic paper as a valuable artform and a source of history.”
Denis Gifford quoted in Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Volume 2 p.913
Denis Gifford was a remarkable figure in British comics. He was a prolific professional comics writer and artist, beginning while at school during the second world war, and a comics historian from the 1970s until his death in 2000. But his influence on British popular culture extended further. He made films for Associated British Pathé, such as A Sporting Year, which he directed in 1964, and the TV pilot Highlight: The Singing Cinema (also directed in 1964), which featured musical numbers from British films. He also gained extensive writing credits for the radio and television and, in 1966, created the popular radio quiz show, Sounds Familiar, which he brought to television as Looks Familiar in 1972. He also devised the cartooning television quiz Quick on the Draw in 1974. He wrote many books about British film, including his magnum opus, the exhaustive British Film Catalogue, first published in 1973. He was also an obsessive collector – of comics (naturally!) as well as magazines and films (on video tape).
Gifford was born on 26 December 1927 in Forest Hill in south east London. He went to Dulwich College from 1939 to 1944, where he produced his first comic, The Junior. He printed it using hectography, a process involving heated gelatin that was able to print only a handful of copies at a time. The school friends who bought copies for 1d included one Robert A (Bob) Monkhouse. Several of Gifford’s friends, including Monkhouse, also started drawing comic strips, and Gifford would create one-off comics containing his own work, contributions from his friends and strips cut from newspapers, such as Little Orphan Annie. These were pasted onto paper and stapled together. The Cartoon Museum owns Gifford’s home-made compilation of his Corker Comics, collecting “Twelve monthly issues February 1944 to January 1945”.
In 1942, aged 14, Gifford sold his first comic, a strip called Magical Monty that appeared in All Fun Comic, published by Soloway Comics. That same year, he sold drawings to the Dandy – his professional career was underway. He drew cartoons for the Sunday paper Reynolds News from 1944-45, then did his national service with the RAF from 1946-48, continuing all the while to produce comics on a freelance basis. This included early (and short-lived) examples of UK-created superheroes for publishers taking advantage of the lack of availability of American comics because of ongoing wartime import restrictions: Mr Muscle for Dynamic Comics (published by International in 1945) and Streamline, co-created with Bob Monkhouse, in Streamline Comics (published by Cardal Publishing in 1947).
After his national service and throughout the late 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, Gifford had a prodigious output as a freelance cartoonist and editor. For a time, he and Monkhouse had a studio together, where they created a number of titles. Among the complete comic books Gifford produced was the detective title Ray Regan (drawn in 1949 by a young Ron Embleton, later to draw Wulf the Briton, Captain Scarlet and The Trigan Empire to great acclaim).
This title included the backup strip Sheerluck Jones drawn by veteran artist Wally Robertson, the original art of which is on display in the Museum, along with a later sketch of the character by Robertson shown here.
Another title he and Monkhouse produced was Star Comics (1954), which featured comics based on contemporary entertainers including Morecambe and Wise and (somewhat self-regardingly) Monkhouse himself, who by then was gaining a name as a light entertainer. That year, Gifford, with Tony Hawes, had written the scripts for Morecambe and Wise’s first television series, Running Wild, and he would create further comics featuring the duo later in his career.
When he left the RAF, Gifford had also started drawing the satirical Telestrip for the London Evening News. The example below from 1956 shows the modern, jazzy cartooning style he developed, quite different from his earlier work that was based on the children’s comics he was reading in his youth or the US superhero artists.
A similar drawing style can also be seen in the back-up strips he created for the Marvelman titles (Young Marvelman, Kid Marvelman, etc) when he began working with Mick Anglo’s studios from 1954, strips like Flip and Flop, transmogrified from the cat and dog characters seen in his Corker Comics to an argumentative odd couple – see an example below from the Cartoon Museum’s collection – and in the relaunch of his character Steadfast McStaunch, which appeared in Whizzer and Chips in 1969. The original version Gifford drew for Knockout in the early 1950s was drawn in a more traditional British comics style (see Lew Stringer’s excellent Blimey! blog post here for more information).
With its broad linework and bignose character designs, the style is reminiscent of US cartoonist Harvey Kurtzman, creator of Mad, in particular the excellent series of one-pagers he drew in the 1940s called Hey Look! It is unknown whether Gifford had seen Kurtzman’s work at that point, although he wrote his obituary for the Independent in 1993, calling Kurtzman “the one man who truly deserved the accolade of genius”. The style also calls to mind the work of hipster US illustrator and animator Gene Deitch from the late 1940s/early 1950s as well as the 1960s animated cartoons of DePatie-Freleng Enterprises such as The Pink Panther and Roland and Rattfink. Gifford’s work was certainly a distinctive presence in the British comics of that period.
During the 1950s and 60s, Gifford continued to contribute various genres of strips, including humour and westerns, to a variety of publishers. In the late 1960s and into the 1970s his focus changed to writing books about comics and about cinema, radio and television. He researched thoroughly and chronicled the history of comics in titles such as Discovering Comics (1971), Victorian Comics (1974) and Comics at War (1987). He also produced comprehensive catalogues and price guides for British comics, including The Complete Catalogue of British Comics including Price Guide (1985) and Encyclopedia of Comic Characters (1987). His books provide a wealth of information unavailable elsewhere and will no doubt be consulted by historians of twentieth century culture for a long time to come.
In 1976 he returned to creating comics with two projects: Reveille Extra and Ally Sloper. Reveille Extra was a comics supplement included with the gossipy tabloid weekly Reveille for twelve weeks, from 30 April to 16 July of that year. Assembled by Gifford, its contents included new Morecambe and Wise strips written by him and drawn by Film Fun artist Terry Wakefield and a teenage schoolgirl strip Hey Penny! also written by him and drawn by Geoff Jones. The Cartoon Museum has recently acquired original art from these two strips.
That same year, Gifford published Ally Sloper magazine, an innovative but uneasy combination of reprints of classic strips, new material by established artists such as Harry Bishop, Frank Bellamy and Frank Hampson and work by underground cartoonists such as Hunt Emerson and JH Szostek. Gifford himself wrote a tame political satire, illustrated by Terry Wakefield in his Film Fun style. His tastes were basically conservative – he delighted in the innocence of the comics of his childhood and disliked children’s comics that took on more adult themes. When, also in 1976, the tabloids whipped up national indignation around the violence in IPC’s new Action comic, Gifford was quoted in the London Evening Standard: “I look back to the days of my youth when comics were things of joy and pleasure rather than blood and guts. My own favourite was the one called Happy Days … Nothing but fun from beginning to end.” (Evening Standard 23 February 1976.)
But he was genuine in his desire to promote comics as a unique artform, and Ally Sloper was his ambitious attempt to create a comic drawing a line from the Victorian origin of comics (Gifford considered Ally Sloper, who first appeared in 1867 drawn by Charles Henry Ross, to be the first continuing comic character) through to the underground ‘comix’ that began appearing in the late 1960s and featured strips whose contents were aimed firmly at adults. Unfortunately, although the magazine was well produced, the eclectic mix failed to find an audience, and the title lasted for only four issues.
1976 also saw Gifford organising Comics 101, a convention “devoted to our native newspaper and comic strips” where the first of his Ally Sloper Awards, celebrating British cartoonists, were bestowed, with Monkhouse handing out the Sloper statuettes.
Ally Sloper was not the last comic Gifford produced – in the early 1980s, he edited and wrote two issues of Melvin’s Money Fun, a promotional comic for the National Savings Bank, for which he called upon many of his cartoonist acquaintances from over the years to draw the strips, including a reprise of Sheerluck Jones by Wally Robertson. But from the mid-1970s, he was concentrating on writing books, criticism and journalism, including a huge number of cartoonists’ obituaries for the Independent and Guardian newspapers. It is reported that on 18 May 2000 he phoned a completed obituary through to his editor from his home in Sydenham, south London, and died later that day, surrounded by his comic collection, which famously covered every spare inch of his home.
Denis Gifford – comics creator, historian and promoter – was a giant of British comics, and the Cartoon Museum is proud to own several pieces of his art and to continue his work of shining the spotlight on British comics as an “artform and a source of history”.
By Richard Crouch
We would like to thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for supporting our work at the Comic Creators Project.
- http://www.bfi.org.uk/explore-film-tv/films-tv-people (retrieved 10/01/2018)
- The British Television Pilot Episodes Research Guide 1936-2015, Christopher Perry (ed.), Kaleidoscope Television Archives Ltd, 2015.
- http://www.ukgameshows.com/ukgs/Main_Page (retrieved 10/01/2018)
- Obituary by Steve Holland: https://www.theguardian.com/news/2000/may/26/guardianobituaries (retrieved 10/01/2018)
- Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature Volume 2 p. 913, edited by R. Reginald et al. Wildside Press LLC, 2010
- http://www.dandare.info/Newspapercomics/newspaper_index.htm (retrieved 10/01/2018)
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Denis_Gifford (retrieved 10/01/2018)
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Comics_art_and_writing_of_Denis_Gifford (retrieved 10/01/2018)
- Dictionary of British Comic Artists, Writers and Editors, Alan Clark, The British Library, 1998
- https://www.independent.co.uk/news/people/obituary-harvey-kurtzman-1474898.html (retrieved 18/01/2018)
- Evening Standard quote from British Comics: A Cultural History, James Chapman, Reaktion Books p.9
- Ally Sloper #1, 1976, A Denis Gifford Creative Comics Production