Roland Oxford Davies was a highly prolific artist with a career spanning six decades during which time he carved out two careers, one as a cartoonist and humorous comic artist and a second as an illustrator dedicated to speed. His paintings of cars and trains emphasised speed and even his most famous cartoon creation, Steve from 'Come on Steve', had a turn of speed that was unexpected from a cart horse.
Far from being the slow, plodding creature that people might have expected from seeing horses from milk rounds or rag and bone carts, Steve was youthfully exhuberant, always wanted to keep up with the latest fashions and changing attitudes of the human society that surrounded him. Many of the strips drew their humour from Steve's curiosity, his ability (or inability) to interpret (or misinterpret) headlines from newspapers or his attempts to emulate the people he sees on his daily travels.
The Steve cartoons were an absolute delight and hugely popular in the 1930s. The title, 'Come on Steve' derived from the racetrack cries as punters urged on one of their favourite jockeys, Steve Donoghue (1884-1945), winner of six Derbys. Although Donoghue retired in the mid-1930s, when Davies started his cartoon in 1932, Donoghue was still a force to be reckoned with and, teamed up with Brown Jack, was still winning races in his early fifties.
Davies had first tried selling the strip as a daily to the Evening Standard but it was turned down; 'Come on Steve' soon found a home at the Sunday Express where editor John Gordon recognised its potential and requested it start the following week. The first strip appeared on 6 March 1932 and, ofter a few years, Davies bought himself a stop-frame camera and spent seven months making Steve Steps Out (1936). Approaching distributors Butcher Film Service Ltd., Davies secured a contract for six more knockabout animated cartoons featuring the horse. Davies put together a team of animators (including a young Carl Giles) under the banner Roland Davies Films Ltd. and Steve of the River (1936), pastiching Edgar Wallace's famous creation Sanders, was a great improvement on the first. Over the next few months Davies and his team produced a further four films, Steve's Treasure Hunt, Steve Cinderella, Steve's Cannon Crackers and Steve in Bohemia (all 1937). The last of the Steve cartoons was to be in colour but Steve Goes to London was never put into production.
The cartoon, however, continued to appear in the Sunday Express until 1939 and then switched to the Sunday Dispatch where he was to appear for another ten years.
Davies, born in Stourbridge, Worcestershire, on 22 July 1904 (not 1910 as stated in The World Encyclopaedia of Comics), and studied art at Ipswich Art School (1919-21) before joining a firm of lithographers and produced cinema posters for a printing firm in West Drayton, in the London borough of Hillingdon. During this time he also freelanced cartoons to Motor Cycle magazine and illustrations to Autocar, Chums and Modern Boy before achieving a hit with 'Come on Steve'.
The success of the strip led to other work, including 'Larry Leopard' for the Daily Express Children's Own supplement (1933-34), 'Percy the Policeman' for the Sunday Express and 'Bessie' for the News Chronicle. In addition, he was also drawing sports cartoons for the Sunday Express and a daily pocket cartoon for the Evening News.
The Steve cartoons inspired two early books based on the cartoon drawings for Steve Steps Out and Steve of the River, published by the Children's Press in 1937 but the closure of his animation studio (which, apart from Steve, only produced one other cartoon, an advert for Ford Tractors) opened the way for other work. Now a full-time freelance, Davies began drawing 'Whoopee Hank, the Slapdash Sheriff' (1938-39) and 'Contrary Mary' (1938-40) for D. C. Thomson's new comic paper, The Beano. 'Boney the Brave (He Lives in a Cave)' (1939) was another Beano strip and 'Bandy Legs' appeared briefly in Magic Comic (1940-41), but by then the war was biting and Thomsons were forced to reduce page-counts and switch their surviving papers to a fortnightly schedule.
Davies established himself with the newly launched Knockout Comic from Amalgamated Press, beginning with 'Gummy' and 'Charlie Chasem' in 1939, and during the war, he produced a number of books, including Great Deeds of the War (1941) and Knights of the Air (1943). With the end of the war, Davies continued to produce books for newcomer Perry Colour Press for whom he created a number of new books about Steve, including Steve Goes to London (the lost Steve cartoon) and various others, ending with Steve and the Burglar and Steve and the Rading Car in 1949; that year, Collins published a scarce "Come on Steve" Annual 1950.
It was in Knockout that a new Davies emerged. Following the demise of Steve in the Sunday Dispatch and in book form, Davies reinvented himself as an adventure artist when he began drawing 'Sexton Blake' in 1949 and adapted the M-G-M movie Ambush for the same paper in 1950. Some of his Blake serials, which he continued to draw until 1952, were later reprinted in Knockout in 1961-62 with Blake's name changed to Pete Maddon.
Not that Davies had turned his back on his more humorous style, illustrating the 1949 edition of the Teddy Tail Annual and producing 'Norman and Henry Bones' for TV Comic (1953) and 'Roddy the Road Scout' (1954-1963?) and 'The Topple Twins (1954-55) for Swift. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s he switched between the two styles, even in the same comic, thus alongside 'Jack and His Baby Jet' in TV Comic, Davies was also drawing 'Red Ray, Space Raynger', 'Wyatt Earp' (1957-59) appeared in Swift alongside Roddy and Davies even adapted 'Dixon of Dock Green' (1960-61) in the same paper.
Davies spread his wings widely over these decades, producing illustrations for books and comics, features for Comet, Sun, Girl, Boys' World, Wham! and others, strips for Super Detective Library, Eagle ('Knights of the Road', 1960), School Friend, Princess and Woman's Realm. In the early 1970s he could be found contributing a series of strips based on Walt Disney properties to Disneyland: 'Jungle Book' (1971), 'Peter Pan' (1971) and 'Winnie the Pooh' (1972). At the same time he was writing and illustrating a series of children's books featuring a character named Tim who appeared in a vaiety of guises, as a cowboy, an airman and an engine driver. In 1971, Davies also illustrated a range of Magic Roundabout spin-off books.
His last known comic strip, 'The Bantam Battlers', appeared in Victor in 1975. Davies, now in his seventies, retired after nearly fifty years as an illustrator, cartoonist and comic strip artist to take up painting. He staged several successful exhibitions in the 1980s. He died on 10 December 1993, aged 89.
(* I was intending to illustrate this with a variety of different strips by Roland Davies... but it took so long to write that it's now the wee hours of the morning and the idea of digging out piles of comics to scan is the furthest thing from my mind. Hopefully the tiny handful of Steve strips above will inspire someone to do a more comprehensive collection.
(I was very surprised to find that the 'Come on Steve' animated cartoons have their very own fanclub who collect the films and hope to create a new live-action Steve movie on 9.5 mm film entitled Steve Saves the Day. According to the website, the film will be produced in 2007. Could this mean that the six Steve cartoons might also be made available somehow?)
Update (22 August 2008): The new movie appears to have stalled and the website mentioned has disappeared. However, I have recently heard from Adrian Roper, who set up Roland Davies Animation in January 1998, located in Ipswich, Suffolk, and named after the creator of Come on, Steve with the permission of Davies' daughter.
Adrian is working on various projects, including a short documentary entitled Roland Davies, the Forgotten Animator using old archive footage of Ipswich, and newly shot footage. In 2002, he began work on a colour animation based on one of Davies' old cartoons, Steve in Bohemia. The project ground to a halt due to the work and time involved. Adrian is selling off the 400 pencil drawings and 50 colour cels that were created for the project.
A DVD containing all six of the Come on Steve animations is available. Price £12 + 75p postage in the UK. Cheque or PO payable to G. L. Newnham, 22 Warren Place, Calmore, Southampton SO40 2SD.