Sunday, October 03, 2021

Ally Sloper — His Life and Times

Alan Clark's latest tome tackles the fascinating subject of Britain's first comic character, Ally Sloper, the potato-headed entrepreneur with his grog blossom nose, ever dressed in his saggy frock coat and battered hat and boasting of his latest schemes. The name was a slang term for someone who sloped off up one of London's thousands of back alleys whenever a debt collector was around, and the caricature, born in a doodle by writer/artist Charles H. Ross on a piece of blotting paper, given character in the pages of Judy where Ross was a regular writer. 'Some of the Mysteries of Loan and Discount' appeared in August 1967, introducing Ally and his semi-regular partner, Isaac Moses (Iky Mo).

Ally's origins are laid out in a short introduction, as are those of his chief artist, Marie Duval (1869-78?), William G. Baxter (1884-86) and William F. Thomas (1888-1916). The character moved from Judy magazine to his own Ally Sloper's Half-Holiday, published and edited by Gilbert Dalziel, who exploited the character in reprint books, colour plates and merchandise.

While Ally's original paper fell during the Great War, it was revived in 1922 with Charles H. Ross junior writing and W. F. Thomas coming out of retirement to draw more cartoons, but was gone within six months. Tastes and styles had changed, and Ally was by then seen to be as old as his hat.

The bulk of the book is then a selection of cartoons, illustrations and covers from the various incarnations of Ally and the magazines in which he starred. Without doubt, this is the largest and most comprehensive selection of Ally Sloper related images I've ever seen, from his very first appearance to the announcement that Ally Sloper's Half-Holiday was merging with London Life and two rather odd post-WW2 one-shots. The only thing not illustrated is Denis Gifford's revival in 1976-77.

There is a quote from Ross that is worth exploring briefly. Ross once claimed that Sloper—or a Sloper-like character—had appeared as early as 1860 in a book called The Great Gun. Although certainly earlier than Sloper's first cartoon, the book actually dates from December 1865.

Over the years, Ally visited everything from the Suez Canal to the Paris Exhibition, and tackled the leading questions of the day, whether it was the Eastern Question or the fake Sir Roger Tichborne. Ally attended numerous Ascots, openings of Parliament, met Buffalo Bill, Sir Henry Morton Stanley, Lord Kitchener and Emile Zola, celebrated Victoria's golden jubilee, the coronation of Edward VII, and his own 1,000th and 1,500th numbers.

Along the way we meet Ally's family and friends, and stumble across some real surprises... like the cover of Tootsie Sloper, a magazine dedicated to Ally's daughter, which ran for a single issue in 1899, and Tootsie Sloper's Serio-Comic Journal, another attempt that also lasted just one issue in 1904. There is also an amazing array of Sloper merchandise, from match cases to music, movies and magic lantern slides.

Sugar-Plums nad Tootletum: The Works of C. H. Ross
is a companion book, Ross being the creator and chief architect of Sloper and his early fame. A slimmer volume than that dedicated to his creation, it is nonetheless just as packed with rare, unseen gems written and drawn by Ross or drawn by his wife, Marie Duval.

Beginning with a brief overview of his career, the book displays a gallery of Ross's work, in Judy, in book form and in various other titles he worked on, most notably the incredibly scarce C.H. Ross's Variety Paper, of which there are no known complete collections. This featured W. G. Baxter's creation 'Choodle', who had briefly appeared in an earlier paper, Comus. Choodle had none of Ally Sloper's following and nor did the Variety Paper have the publishing acumen on Gilbert Dalziel behind it. It folded after 34 issues.

Clark introduced Mrs. Ross in to the story, again with plenty of illustrations, and the book is completed with a reprint of Queens and Kings and Other Things, a slim volume from 1874 with short verses by Ross illustrated by Marie Duval.

Not for all tastes, but fascinating to anyone who has an interest in the origins of British comics, British comedy and the works of Marie Duval, one of the first female comic strip artists and illustrators.

Privately published, both books are available via Ebay as a pair, priced £30.00.

Ally Sloper. His Life & Times
by Alan Clark.
Alan Clark, 2021 [September 2021], 262pp (A5), £15.00.

Sugar-Plums & Tootletum, The Work of C. H. Ross by Alan Clark.
Alan Clark, 2021 [September 2021], 162pp (A5), £15.00.

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