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Friday, December 15, 2006

Hugh McNeill

All but forgotten nowadays, Hugh McNeill was one of the major contributors to British comics who helped change the face of British comics in the 1940s. In the pages of The Knock-Out Comic (the hyphen was dropped after six years), editors Edward Holmes and Percy Clarke, along with the paper's newly-arrived sub-editor Leonard Matthews, created what was essentially A.P.'s first modern comic from which sprang Fleetway's much-loved titles of the 1950s and 1960s, Lion, Tiger, Valiant and many others.

Of course, we must not forget the influence of D. C. Thomson's Dandy Comic and Beano Comic
which had arrived in 1937-38, ahead of Knockout's 1939 debut. These three titles effectively started the 'silver age' of British comics, although wartime shortages put the industry into a holding pattern until the end of paper rationing in 1950. The launch of Eagle is therefore usually seen as the starting point of a new comics era as it helped define the revolution that was happening. But the war itself had swept away most of the pre-war penny blacks and tuppenny coloureds and Knockout, along with Radio Fun and Film Fun, was one of the few titles that survived.

Knockout reflected the pre-war format, which mixed humour strips and adventure strips alongside text stories and serials, but introduced an astonishing roster of new artists. During Ted Holmes' enforced vacation from the editorial chair (he served with the R.A.F.), wartime editor Percy Clarke and Leonard Matthews introduced a series of tales based on classic novels -- everything from Gulliver's Travels to Stories from the Arabian Nights -- mostly drawn by Eric Parker but, over the years, introducing newcomers to the comic strip like Michael Hubbard. When Holmes returned he continued to do the same, his tenure marking the arrival of D. C. Eyles; and when Leonard Matthews took over as full editor, he completed the revolution with illustrators Sep E. Scott, T. Heath-Robinson, W. Bryce-Hamilton, Lunt Roberts and H. M. Brock.

But these artists were illustrators rather than comic strip artists and some (like Brock) adapted better than others to the need for the pictures to tell the story. What it took, to really lift the adventure strip, was an artist who was experienced at drawing comics.

Hugh McNeill had, until 1947, been seen as a 'funnies' artist. He had learned his trade via Kayebon Studios where he was apprenticed at the age of 16, and evening classes at the Manchester School of Art. McNeill had already shown a talent for drawing at school, producing pictures of teachers, pupils and animals to entertain his classmates; before long he spread his wings to local church magazines and became the official cartoonist for the Manchester City Boxing Club, producing a booklet of cartoons for sale at boxing matches.

McNeill was present in the first issue of The Beano (30 July 1938) with 'Ping the Elastic Man' and for the first Christmas number created 'Pansy Potter, the Strong Man's Daughter'. Samples of strips submitted to the A.P.'s The Jolly Comic were spotted by Ted Holmes who was looking for contributors for his new paper, The Knock-Out Comic, and McNeill began producing 'Simon the Simple Sleuth' and 'Deed-a-Day Danny'. A few issues later, McNeill took over the strip 'Our Ernie', the young northern lad whose imaginary adventures always ended just before tea-time.

It was only after the war that McNeill began drawing adventure strips, beginning with 'Tough Tod and Happy Annie, the Runaway Orphans' in 1947 and then 'Thunderbolt Jaxon' for Ted Holmes' new series of Australian comics. His skill as an adventure artist developed quickly and strips like 'Deadshot Sue' and 'The Fighting O'Flynn' (the latter based on the movie), published in Sun in 1949-50, show him to be comfortable in almost every genre. David Ashford often singles out 'Dick Turpin' (also in Sun) as his best work, first in a single-page adventure under the title 'Highway Days' (1951) and then in various serials which began in Sun in May 1952. The stories were more gothic in tone and were minor classics of a genre that had its roots in the penny bloods of a century earlier.

McNeill's influence as an adventure artist is little known outside his most ardent admirers. Geoff Campion, a newcomer to the pages of Knockout in the late 1940s, admitted that he learned much from taking over strips from McNeill. McNeill's was the house style that artists were expected to adopt before developing styles of their own.

In 1953, Percy Clarke was responsible for updating another area of the A.P.'s output. Nursery comics were nothing new -- the A.P. had published comics aimed at very young children for almost fifty years in titles like Puck, although The Rainbow, which debuted in 1914, was the premier title of A.P.'s nursery range for many years. By the end of the war, only Rainbow, The Playbox and Tiny Tots survived and by the early fifties all three were looking very old-fashioned and rather tired. The arrival of Robin from Hulton Press in early 1953 prompted the A.P. to put together a new title for youngsters -- to be called Jack and Jill after the famous nursery rhyme. And Hugh McNeill's work was central to this new title.

McNeill was artistically responsible for three strips in the early issues of Jack and Jill, including the cover strip, and his was the style that was stamped on the paper. Jack and Jill themselves, children of around 7 or 8 years of age, were rather banal characters whose adventures were told in four colour frames with a two lines of verse. Jack was dressed in shorts, a shirt, tie and sleeveless jumper in the first episode but switched to a yellow t-shirt in episode two; Jill swapped from a green dress to a red dress and was invariably dressed in red: in summer a red bathing costume and in winter a red coat. This meant the children matched the brightly coloured livery of the paper, with its red masthead and yellow borders and the magazine stood out like a beacon on the newsstands.

Buttercup Farm, where Jack and Jill lived with their parents (the rarely seen Farmer and Mrs. Honey) was the safest, sunniest place in the world. The children could wander around the farm or down to the village without parental supervision and their 'adventures' usually consisted of them enjoying themselves. Activities included having a tea party (livened up when their puppy, Patch, steps in a dish of strawberry jam), walking down the lane on a windy day (a scarecrow's hat flies off and lands on Patch), looking at some ducks, finding a stray lamb, watching Patch play with a bunny rabbit... the tiniest amount of tension arrives when Patch goes missing, only to turn up in Jack's haversack.

Life was safe and sunny, bright and gay (in the old-fashioned sense of the word)... that was the message from Jack and Jill and young children lapped it up. Michael Berry, chairman of the A.P., reported in July 1954 that Jack and Jill "has done very well. It has won general acclaim among parents, school-teachers, and educational authorities. Our early confidence in this attractive colour-gravure weekly for children has been justified and it is good to know that there is still a big demand for this type of paper which has the right kind of contents for young children, together with a high standard of art work, printing, and production. Among new post-war magazines few have aroused greater interest and a sense of promise than this excellent little paper for the young."

McNeill would continue to draw these always delighted children until December 1955, although he shared the strip with a number of other artists before the strip was taken over by Eric Stephens.

McNeill's second strip in the early Jack and Jill related 'The Happy Days of Teddy and Cuddly the Baby Bears'. McNeill brought the same delight that he did for children to these woodland tales as Teddy and Cuddly (Teddy has the white face) get up to all sorts of mischief and the stories are distinguished by some beautifully drawn sequences when the bears roll logs or go swimming.

However, I have to admit that the strip improved greatly when Bert Felstead took over the artwork in 1956. Felstead actually had a background in animation and his abilities at depicting movement and action far outweighed McNeill's on this particular strip.

Why that should be is probably down to the subject matter; I suspect McNeill tried to inject a little realism into the strip and these were, after all, meant to be real bears. The stories were rather gentle and he was already drawing a knockabout character in which he could depict the kind of exaggerated animation that Felstead would bring to 'Teddy and Cuddly'.

This was 'The Fun and Frolics of Harold Hare'. Harold had been around for some years, first appearing as a background character in a text story written by George E. Rochester for the Knockout Fun Book 1946. The following year, Harold starred in his first solo story and, another year later, Hugh McNeill took over the illustrations. Harold and his neighbours from Wild Wood then starred briefly in a comic strip in Sun July-August 1950, although this was drawn by Harry Hargreaves (another ex-animator); a year later, Roy Davis brought the character back, although his run lasted only seven months from August 1951.

It took McNeill's particular brand of humour to bring Harold truly to life and he was to be one of the jewels of the nursery comics crown for the next thirty years, spinning off into a newspaper strip in 1957 and into his own title in 1959 whilst still retaining his place in Jack and Jill until it folded in June 1985, a boast even the title characters cannot claim.

Harold was the epitome of the Mad March Hare and his life is as topsy-turvy as you would expect: he lives in an upside down house on the outskirts of Leafy Wood and, as his close friend Dicky Dormouse sighs at the end of his first mad romp in the pages of Jack and Jill: "There's no peace for anybody when Harold Hare's about."

Harold just wants to fill his life with jam -- jam had become an overriding obsession by the time Harold bounded into Harold Hare's Own Paper -- and fun and running and splashing around. The stories were simple (approximately 30 words per panel, 8 panels per spread) and fun and just the thing for the young audience the paper was aimed.

McNeill saved some of his best work for Harold and continued to draw the strip long after he gave up both Jack and Jill and Teddy and Cuddly. However, his talents were in high demand when Leonard Matthews and Mike Butterworth were putting together Playhour Pictures a few months after Jack and Jill was launched. McNeill briefly drew 'The Wonderful Adventures of Peter Puppet' in late 1954 and later was the debut artist of 'Sonny and Sally of Happy Valley' -- Playhour's Jack and Jill -- in 1956 (again taken over by Eric Stephens).

In 1958, McNeill created another rabbit character for Tiny Tots. 'Bunny Cuddles' was even more obsessed by jam than Harold was: jam for breakfast, jam for dinner, jam for tea, jam for snacks and jam for supper. Bunny lived in Bunnyville and his best friend was the put upon Tiny Mole who is, more often than not, the sane voice when Bunny comes up with more and more elaborate schemes to obtain jam. Tiny even earned himself a regular mini-strip of his own. McNeill continued working on Bunny Cuddles when the strip was transferred to Playhour when Tiny Tots was merged in 1959.

1959 also saw the launch of the oversized Harold Hare's Own Paper which not only contained a full-page Harold Hare colour cover strip but also another McNeill creation, 'Flopsy Flufftail', a female Harold who spends most of her life creatively solving problems which always seem to involve some kind of mess, whether it's a muddy puddle or getting herself covered in glue. A diminutive sidekick was, by now, de rigeur for McNeill's family of rabbits and Flopsy was often dragged out of her latest mess by Freda Fieldmouse.

With three strips on the go -- Harold and Flopsy in Harold Hare's Own were a full page apiece and both Harold (in Jack and Jill) and Bunny Cuddles were two pages apiece -- you would have thought McNeill had enough on his plate. But the A.P. liked to get their best artists involved with new publications and the newly launched Buster had debuted in May 1960. Bill Titcombe had been involved with the launch of the paper and, with Ron Clark scripting, had been drawing 'Buster, Son of Andy Capp' on the front cover, plus a couple of spin-off strips -- 'Buster's Diary' and 'Busters of Bygone Days'. McNeill was present in the early issues with a reprint of an old strip, 'Claude and Cuthbert'. Then there was a bit of an unheaval when Bill Titcombe was dropped from Buster and McNeill took over drawing a new cover strip, 'The Daydreams of Buster' and a new spin-off, 'Buster's Good Deeds', from February 1961. (Why Bill was dropped is a whole other story which I'll talk about sometime soon.)

About a year earlier, Ron Nielsen (a very good artist in his own rights) had started colouring Harold Hare in Jack and Jill when the strip moved to the centre pages. In June, Harold returned to black & white but with Nielsen doing the wash tones. To allow McNeill to work on Buster also meant that another artist took over the Flopsy Flufftail strip in Harold Hare's Own Paper and McNeill trained an assistant, Pamela Cooper, to work with him on other strips, inking and (mechanical) toning the Harold Hare strip in the same paper and the Bunny Cuddles strip in Playhour.

'Buster's Good Deeds' came to an end to allow McNeill to work on 'Our Village', a double page spread in Jack and Jill, coloured by various artists including Arnold Beauvais, Peter Ashmore and Eric Stephens, and create another newcomer, 'The Funny Adventures of Nutty Noddle' for Robin. These knockabout adventures of a forgetful squirrel were soon taken over by Pamela Cooper who, by now, was able to perfectly mimic McNeill's style of drawing.

In 1962, McNeill left 'The Daydreams of Buster' but continued his association with that paper drawing 'Tim & Vicky, the TV Twins' and, over the next few years, was to draw 'Life With Uncle Lionel' in Princess, 'The Trolls' and 'Willy the Wily Wolf' for Tina, both of which continued with Princess and Tina merged as Princess Tina in 1967.

McNeill continued to draw Harold Hare into the 1970s as well as creating the occasional new strip such as 'Giggles Galore' and 'Gussie the Girl Guide' for Pixie and 'Meet the Beans' in Bonnie which proved to be his last strip creation. In 1976, McNeill suffered a stroke which left him unable to draw. He died at his home in Sussex on 22 November 1979, aged 68. A day later it was announced that he was to receive the Ally Sloper Award for his contributions to comic art.

McNeill's contributions to nursery comics have rather been overshadowed by his work in Knockout (even the creation of 'Pansy Potter, the Strong Man's Daughter' for The Beano tends to be a footnote). Hopefully this scamper through the topsy-turvy world of McNeill's later creations helps redress the balance a little.

(* A huge thanks to Norman Wright for the photograph of Hugh McNeill and his wife which heads this little essay. Our Ernie and Dick Turpin artwork is © IPC Media; all other characters and artwork are © Look and Learn Magazine Ltd.)

3 comments:

Anonymous said...

Steve

Thanks for an excellent article. I have very fond childhood memories of Harold Hare, and the handful of HH's Own Paper I got a few years back showed my memory didn't play me false. I also like what little I've seen of McNeill's adventure work, mostly Dick Turpin stories reprinted as starring Jack O'Lantern in Valiant.

David Simspon

Steve said...

David,

Thanks for the kind words. The Valiant strip was Jack O'Justice and ran in 1962-66 which was before I started picking up Valiant. I even missed the follow-up, Jack Justice, featuring O'Justice's great-great-great-grandson (1966-67). However, the strip was amongst the first McNeill stories I read when I later (late seventies/early eighties) began collecting comics.

I have very few Knockouts, sadly. I've seen a substantial number of issues from the 1950s until the end in 1963, but those 1940s issues are now almost impossible to find and very expensive when you do. In those instances I have to trust in the opinion of David Ashford and Norman Wright and a tiny handful of examples when I say that McNeill was at his best with knockabout humour: Deed-a-Day Danny and Our Ernie seem to be two definite high points in humour strips here in the UK. I'd love to see a run of these reprinted... but then we enter the debate of how many copies would you actually sell. Not enough for a publisher like Titan to worry about and probably too few for even a small press to do a proper print run. Sad but true.

john adcock said...

Steve and David

Excellent is the word. The earliest glimpse I had of the Beano was in 1956 when I was six years old. Well do I remember the horrific feeling I got from viewing Pansy Potter. I much preferred the Jocks & the Geordies. In hindsight...

I'm a big fan of Our Ernie but hitherto Dick Turpin was something I had only heard about. Maybe Dick Turpin might be easier to sell than Our Ernie ?

Thanks for a swell article.

John Adcock