Lot-o’-Fun Comics for children published during the Great War
In his third article on little known texts published for young readers during the Great War, Geoff Fox turns to comics, arguably the most popular medium by which those readers followed the conflict.
n the November 14 1914 issue of their weekly comic Lot-o’-Fun, publishers James Henderson and Sons invited readers to enter a ‘NEW COMPETITION. Doubtless you have read many good stories or jokes about the war lately, or they may have been told
to you. Write your story on a postcard and send it to Lot-o’-Fun … 5/- will be given to the sender of the best war story or joke. 25 other useful prizes in order of merit.’
after its first issue). In Issue 453 Paul is somewhere close to the fighting. Two pickle-helmeted, tubby German officers are bullying a poor innkeeper into serving them ‘free grub’: ‘Bring a roast goose, all the champagne you have, some sausage etc…or!!!’ (exclamation marks worked hard in comics of the day). A bombed cottage burns in the background, the tiny outline of its occupant racing from the ruins. Paul sneaks under the table, ingeniously robs the Germans of their feast and ropes their legs together. (‘Von Sneezer, None of Zat pulling mine leg!’ ‘Your chokes vill lead to a duel mit us Von Vinkle!’) Over the horizon, cheerily singing ‘I saw Yer! I saw Yer!’, march some Tommies and Paul hands over his prisoners to them, along with vital information about troop movements. (‘He had kept his ears open while under the table – you can trust him.’)
‘ British pluck and humour characterised
the comics’ version of war in the early months of the conflict
The centre double page spread of short strips includes a couple of illustrated jokes about the war – perhaps contributed by readers in an earlier competition:
Swaggering German Officer: Don’t talk to me, fellow. Do you know I belong to one of the Kaiser’s crack regiments?
German Private: Yes, no doubt: but when the British Tommies get at you, it’ll be one of the cracked regiments.
British pluck and humour characterised the comics’ version of war in the early months of the conflict, despite the realities of the Battle of Mons, the Great Retreat and the first Battle of Ypres. Readers were also urged to stay abreast of events; Lot-o’-Fun suggested, ‘Keep well informed of the war by reading the vivid, realistic War Serials appearing in Comic Life, Big Comic and Sparks’. The December 26 1914 issue of its rival, Picture Fun, noted that ‘Bounderby Bouncer, War Correspondent, Appears Weekly in Funny Cuts’. Several factual papers reporting the war for young readers appeared soon after hostilities began. One aspect of the war must have seemed very immediate: ‘Khaki Fever’ was rampant and in the first week of September, some 200,000 men volunteered to fight. Information and stories were unashamedly propagandist. The Huns were seen as ludicrous idiots or savage beasts, bloated with sausage and beer; at the same time, they were terrified of cold British steel and thought nothing of using women and children as human shields to save their own ‘pallid skins’.
Lot-o’-Fun and Picture Fun shared the ubiquitous ‘tabloid’ format of the times (c. 14 x 11 inches). Each ran to 8 pages, divided in roughly equal measure between very short picture strip jokes and short stories – in effect, anecdotes – and longer stories in densely printed pages relieved by a single illustration. The typeface is minute (smaller than the smallest available on a PC), so that more than 4000 words crowd each five-column page.
Lot-o’-Fun boasts a full colour front page, featuring Patriotic Paul (whose adventures the comic had chronicled since 1908, two years
4 Books for Keeps No.208 September 2014
Kaiser Bill and his son Little Willie (always caricatured as a chinless weakling) were regularly ridiculed in the comics of those early war years. In the front page story in the Christmas 1914 Issue of Picture Fun, they are outwitted and humiliated by our heroes, ‘Brimstone Bobs and That Brick Billy Belgium’. What’s more, Bobs and Billy capture Professor von Swank, the great German scientist and drive him at bayonet point back to the British lines, ‘where they had a great reception from our lads, who gave them a rousing British cheer!’
Two of the four longer print stories in Lot-o’-Fun are about the war. Their length and vocabulary – to say nothing of the size of the typeface – suggest quite able readers, begging the question of the age of the comic’s readership. The Great Coup features ‘The Adventures of Pontifex Shrewd at the War’. The famous detective, now engaged in special missions as an Army Captain – though still accompanied by his faithful Chinese servant, Feng Wo has been wounded (‘a little scratch’) in last week’s action near Cracow. Despite Dr Michaelovitch’s warning that he needs three weeks rest, Pontifex flies to Paris in his Taube monoplane (on this occasion, owing to Shrewd’s injuries, piloted by Feng Wo - ‘All li’, me can do’). Pontifex is taken to meet General Joffre, who removed ‘from his breast the Cross of the Legion of Honour and pinned it upon that of Shrewd.’ Two days later, Shrewd is back in Britain, tackling this week’s adventure involving a German spy, an indispensable character in early war stories. Shrewd is not deceived by his disguise, spotting a tell-tale duelling scar on the spy’s cheek (‘some brawl in Heidelberg,’ speculates Shrewd). The detective, Feng Wo and some action-hungry Territorials foil an attempt by several thousand Germans and a couple of Zeppelins to free hundreds of German prisoners from a camp near Maidenhead. At least, I think that’s what happens – the plot is a little convoluted towards the end.
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