Know Thy History: Ally Sloper
So, class, who was the first comic character?
“Superman!” you say!
No, shut up.
“Um, The Yellow Kid?” You’re getting closer. The Yellow Kid, created by Richard F. Outcault (who was also responsible for previous “Know Thy History” entrant Buster Brown) is often recognized as the first American comic character.
However, if we include our buddies from across the really big pond into the conversation, we’d be fools not to recognize Alexander Sloper… better known as “Ally” Sloper. The guy made his debut way back in August 14, 1867, appearing in Judy magazine (which was a wordplay on the popular periodical Punch). That’s nearly 150 years ago. Or nearly 100 years before Peter Parker donned his Spidey tights.
Ally Sloper — so named after a British collloquialism for people dodging the rent collector by sloping into the alley — was created by Charles H. Ross. He initially handled the illustrations with his wife, Emilie de Tessier, doing the inking duties. Eventually, though, all art duties were handled by Ms. Tessier (who was using the pseudonym Marie du Val). As you may expect, a lady drawing a comic was practically unheard of, ESPECIALLY since comic books didn’t really exist yet. Anyway, this power combo handled the Ally Sloper property for almost two decades.
The two eventually sold the title to Judy‘s publisher, who then created an all new publication called Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday. (And, to dissect another antiquated Britishism, “half holiday” refered to Saturdays, where you’d get off of work on the afternoon — because the entire economy was apparently run by Ebeneezer Scrooge.) He was then illustrated by William Baxter and, more famously, by W. Fletcher Thomas. The comics medium had yet to evolve into something we would recognize today. Half Holiday was a mix of cartoons, strips, and text stories. (Unlike today, where webcomics are accompanied by hastily drawn side comics, character-driven Twitter posts, blogs … hey, wait a minute!) Thus, Alley Sloper is recognized as the first comic character to ever get his own magazine.
So what was Ally Sloper up to? Well, beyond sneaking out of the rent, dude was all about surrounding himself with hot Victorian ladies — and getting into (presumably sexy) fistfights with them. I wonder what his plump wife, who looked a little like Queen Victoria, thought about Ally’s womanizing shenanigans.
You can tell by his big, bulbous red nose that he loves to drink (even going so far as defending his rights politically) and generally has a gay old time. Sometimes he was palling around with Iky Mo, a Jewish stereotype.
Ally’s not all fun and games, though. Man may be fun loving, but he’s got responsibilities. From time to time, he showed a charitable side by feeding the unemployed and saving people from burning buildings. But, man, do not get on his bad side because dude is totally hardcore.
If this sounds very Andy Capp to you, Don Markstein over at Toonopedia suspects that Ally was his inspiration. Meanwhile, Roger Sabin has one of the best Ally Sloper write-ups in the internet. He discusses at depth, for example, Ally Sloper’s early innovations in marketing (Ally Sloper relish, son!) and community building. He claims that Ally was also the inspiration of Charlie Chaplin’s The Tramp character and the inspiration for W.C. Fields in creating his stage and screen persona. Personally, I see a lot of Mr. Bean in the character, too. So while Ally Sloper may have ended during World War I (though brief revivals were attemped in the 40’s and the 70’s), his legacy lives on.
I mean, one of the building blocks of motion picture comedy? Hell of an accomplishment for a comic.
(Links and images taken from the University of Alberta’s Ally Sloper Online Exhibit.)