Saturday, 26 November 2016

From Mud to Mufti - The Forgotten Cartoonist of World War One

Lt. Bruce Bairnsfather
The past couple of years have seen a lot of attention paid to various anniversaries associated with the First World War.  While looking through a web-site on cartoons of the Great War I came across a name I'd never heard before, the name of a man who was as popular in his time as a TV or movie star and yet is now almost totally forgotten.  

Bruce Bairnsfather, had movies made about him, had his creations as heavily merchandised as almost any movie or television show and had such an effect on troop morale that he was described by newspapers as "the man who won the war".  His first compilation of cartoons, “Fragments from France”, published in January 1916 sold over a million copies.

Bairnsfather was a cartoonist, one whose morale boosting impact on the men in the trenches led to him and his creation "Old Bill" becoming among the best known names of the later war years.

Had it not been for the war it is likely that Bairnsfather would have been a nameless artist, who might have had a few cartoons published in one of the weekly magazines of his time but it’s unlikely he would ever have achieved the public prominence that he did.

He'd been born into a military family, having spent much of his early life in India before being educated at the United Services College at Westward Ho! beginning in 1895.  He failed the entrance exams to both Sandhurst and Woolwich military academies but briefly joined the Cheshire Regiment anyway, leaving in 1907 to become a full-time artist, working mainly on advertising material.

Bairnsfather's drawing of the Christmas Day Truce sketched on the day itself.
At the outbreak of in 1914 he joined the Royal Warwickshire Regiment as a second lieutenant and served with a Machine-Gun unit in the front lines.  At Christmas of the that year he was part of the famous Christmas Day truce where soldiers from both sides of the line met in no-man's land and exchanged gifts and played football.  In his illustrated autobiography, "Bullets and Billets" (1916) he recalls the way in which contact was made between the two sides. 

He talks of "the Boche" sticking their heads out of the trenches, just a little at first and then becoming braver.  Until finally "a complete Boche figure appears above the parapet".  His account of the incident included the story of how he swapped buttons with a German officer as each dreams of the stories they will tell of the heroic way in which they captured these souvenirs of war when they got home.

He describes a member of his unit cutting the unruly hair of a German soldier, each babbling happily in a language the other did not understand.  His cartoon of the event became one of the most famous images of the time, but was not popular with the powers that be.

Sometime between April and May of 1915 he was injured during the second battle of Ypres.  A particularly terrible battle that marked the first extensive use of poisonous gas by the Germans.   He was hospitalised, suffering from Shellshock and hearing loss.  He described how he obtained his injuries in “Bullets and Billets”.

I couldn't grasp where I was.  I lay and trembled...

I had been blown up by a shell.

I lay there some little time, I imagine, with a most peculiar sensation.  All fear of shells and explosions had left me.  I still heard them dropping about and exploding, but I listened to them and watched them as calmly as one would watch an apple fall off a tree.  I couldn't make myself out.  Was I all right or all wrong?

I tried to get up and then I knew.  The spell was broken.  I shook all over, and had to lie still, with tears pouring down my face.

I could see my part in the battle was over.

"Old Bill", in all his glory.
Bairnsfather dragged himself back from the front lines, taking shelter in a cottage garden surrounded by rows of dead and mutilated men.  Finally he was helped by a nameless stranger to a field dressing station.  This account, which ends the first volume of his autobiography, closes with the news that three days later he was back in London in a hospital bed.  He would never be fit for frontline action again.

His next posting was to a regimental HQ on Salisbury Plain as a machine gun instructor.  Here he continued his cartooning career. Selling his evocative images of trench life featuring "Old Bill", to various magazines, most notably the weekly Bystander. 

"Old Bill" was not an officer, not even a sergeant, he was one of the men.  He was uncouth and untidy but wise in the ways of the world.  To begin with Bairnsfather's cartoons were not popular with high command.  They were seen as vulgar and not representative of the best features of the British Soldier.  Helmets were askew and at times officers were not portrayed in a particularly favourable light.

Best known of all of BB's cartoons.
But his work was not aimed at senior officers, it was aimed firmly at the men Bairnsfather had commanded and shared Trenches with.  He understood the life of an ordinary Tommy.  He understood the misery of the mud and the terror of the bombardments.  His cartoons made the men laugh, while at the same time showing a deep understanding of their ordeal and an affection for people he simply regarded as his comrades.  It is no exaggeration to say that he became loved by the men as one of the "good officers", one of the ones who really got it.

His impact on the morale of the British soldier was quickly recognised and objections to his work quickly faded.  The War Office appointed him official cartoonist for Military Intelligence Section 7B.  Indeed so important was he felt to be to morale that both Bruce and his creation, Bill, would at one time or another be dubbed, “the man who won the war" in the newspapers.

He was quickly approached by the French, American and Italian armies, redoing some of his best cartoons substituting soldiers from these armies for the Tommie’s he knew so well and extending his fame beyond the British Trenches.  He continued working on "Old Bill" well after the end of the war, becoming as famous as any cartoonist has before or since.  Old Bill was the subject of books, stage plays and films.  Bairnsfather himself was the subject of one of the first British sound films and even wrote and directed a 1928 Canadian movie called "Carry on Sargent"

His cartoons appeared on plates, cups and anything else that might be printed upon.   There is even a story, that the Police force were given the nickname "Old Bill" because of the post war habit of so many of them to sport a version of Bairnsfather’s Bills' famous moustache.

A WW2 Cover to the US services magazine, Yank
When World War two broke out his services were not required by the British and he eventually became the official artist of the American Forces in Britain, supplying cartoons for the Stars and Stripes and Yank magazines.  He painted designs on the noses of American bombers and drew cartoons on bases for the men. 

He seems to have been forgotten by the British during the Second World War and by the time he died, from bladder cancer in 1959 was largely forgotten.  

Perhaps the people did not want to be reminded of the horrors of the First World War.  But for a time he was one of the most popular figures in Britain, his special ability to capture both the humour and the horror of the trenches made a real difference to the lives of men fighting in a 'War to End all Wars".   There are very few cartoonists who can have had such an impact on so many people.

I don't think he deserves to be forgotten.

Bruce Bairnsfather’s first two volumes of autobiography, "Bullets and Billets" and "From Mud to Mufti", had been out of print for many years.   They were made available a few years back by Mark Marsay and Great Northern Publishing as a combined volume as The Bairnsfather Omnibus.  He writes with humour, affection and understanding.  It's now 100 years since the first volume was published and the style may seem a little odd but I have no hesitation in recommending them as a great and moving read.

A collaboration between American war Cartoonist Dave Berger and Bairnsfather.

Check out some more of his artwork here.


Bullets and Billets - A Bruce Bairnsfather gallery

Over by Christmas?

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

ZX Spectrums and Commodore Amiga Tie-Ins - Comics from Dan Whitehead.

Dan Whitehead has a thing for games, old games, the sort you played on a ZX Spectrum and loaded via a cassette player.   He also has a thing about comics and this year has joined the two interests and has written a couple of comics that relate to very, very old games.  Dan's background is in Computer Game journalism and both of his projects reflect the computer game scene of the 80's, a time when graphics were poorer but arguably games were more fun.  He's edited and written a few comics in the past, most notably The Raven, an adaptation of Edgar Allen Poe, stories for Self Made Hero and an adaptation of Jason and the Argonauts for younger readers.

Midwinter, is based in the world of a Commodore Amiga Game written by games legend Mike Singleton who died in 2012.  The game, Midwinter, was a unique mixture of first person shooter, adventure and strategy.  It was set in a world where an asteroid impact had created global cooling. 

The player took control of a number of characters, most notably John Stark, as they tried to free their small island from the despotic control of Col. Masters.  The comic, entitled Landfall, picks up well after the game.  John Stark is gone and a small group of survivors are living a comfortable, if precarious life, in a well-protected and most importantly geothermically powered village. 

The first issue, well-paced and clearly plotted by Dan, sets the scene, creates a few interesting questions for the reader and, by the end, puts in place the main conflict for issues to come.  It's well written and has a bit of a Chuck Dixon feel to it, although there is also the influence of British comics of the eighties, Battle or Action Force perhaps.  The Black and White art is by another of the small cadre of excellent Northern Ireland based artists working for 2000 AD, P J Holden. 

P J Holden art from Midwinter
Here P J does not quite have the opportunity to strut his imaginative stuff as much as he does in the superb Department of Monstorology, but his art serves the needs of the story perfectly.  His characters are expressive and distinct and the sense of space and place that he creates makes the setting believable.  Much of the story takes place in claustrophobic locations, but it’s in the opening pages that P J does his best work, with some deft storytelling.

The excellent cover is by Steve Pugh and reminded me of both, the old Eclipse comics of the eighties and the full-page ads for various computer games at about the same time.  It promises much for the future.   This is a good adventure comic in the style of the British comics of the eighties and some of the best of the independent publishers of the eighties.  Knowledge of the original computer game is not going to be necessary but for anyone who played it there is going to be an extra frisson of pleasure from picking up on small points of reference.

Dan's second comic, Hex Loader, combines a number of eighties themes.  It takes the 'dangerous book' idea of Lovecraft and transfers it into the cassette-based game age.  A mysterious tape sent from by a reclusive games genius leads on a path of mystery and occult danger.   Dan says that Hexloader began as a joke, and that's very much how I see this first issue.  It combines Lovecraftian ideas and some of the foibles of the American comics’ scene in the eighties.   It’s full of references to British TV and culture of the time.   The surprise on the final page made me chuckle, and I am wondering what will come next. 

Atmospheric art from Conor Boyle
If I'm honest, not as strong a first issue as Midwinter.  Lots of ideas but many that I had seen before, Conor Boyle's art looks great for the first four pages and the final sequence, but for much of the comic he has little opportunity to show how good he is.  It’s well worth looking on his blog for some recent samples of his work.

These are good comics, professionally written and drawn.  They both hark back to the time when Dan was growing up and if you are of that generation and remember the ZX Spectrum and the Commodore 64, or if you played Midwinter then I think these could well be right up your street.  We need second issues soon, and I'll be looking forward to them.

Both Hex Loader and Midwinter are available through Comicsy.  Many thanks to Dan for letting me see them!    

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Monologue to Epilogue, the Comics of S J McCune

Where do I start, I've just been totally blown away by a comic.  A self-published comic from a visual artist from Northern Ireland, S J McCune. 

I've written in Splank! about Stuart and his comics a few times.  Mainly I've talked about the elegance of the artwork, the almost architectural exactness of his often sparse and beautifully coloured backgrounds and how they contrast with the fluidity of his figures.  I've said less about his storylines, and partly that's been because they are more difficult to get a handle on.   That has been particularly true of his Monologue series.  But I've just read the third and final issue, then re-read the first two and read issue 3 once again.  And I think I'm now ready to say something about it.

Monologue is about time, about sense of self and just perhaps, about madness.  It’s about the inability of one human being to fully understand or even accurately perceive another.  It’s obtuse, yet totally engaging and open to personal interpretation.  I don't think Stuart will object if the meaning that I or anyone else has taken from his comic is not exactly the same as he envisaged.  In that way it is truly a work of art.  Something the artist has produced and then released, allowing everyone to take from it whatever they can.     

This is an intelligent comic, one that uses the unique mix of words and pictures that the comic form offers to huge effect and does not compromise.  I'm not sure if it tells a story or makes a philosophical statement about the nature of self over time.  But it has left me thinking and wondering and moved.  Many attempts to use comics in this way come across as pretentious and frankly, incomprehensible.  I think it’s fair to say that from my reading Stuart has fully succeeded in pulling off something quite special here.  

 Monologue 3 is a quick read, but it stays with you. I keep going back to it, looking at individual pages, reading it again and thinking about the story.  There is a double page spread that kept drawing me back.  Looking at the swirling colours as if cloud watching.  Sometimes seeing a sphinx or a motor car.  The final page, artfully designed to require the reader to turn a physical page, shocked and moved me and yet I cannot put into words why or quite what I think it means.  I'm struggling to say what I want about this comic, but I hope my enthusiasm for it is coming across.  

All three issues are also very beautiful, not just in terms of the images, but as objects.  Paper quality is excellent and Stuart's attention to detail in design and printing is second to none.  There are also little visual jokes that point at the huge knowledge of comics that Stuart possesses.  He swipes a panel from a fairly obscure and underestimated DC comics of the 1980's, Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan's "Night Force", but makes it his own by replacing demons with much more contemporary symbols of fear in the form of Hoodies.

I'm not sure if paper comics of the three Monologue titles are still available, I suspect not, but you can buy all three in electronic form from his Bigcartel web-page with more of his comics available on Comixology under his imprint Millicent Barnes Comics.

In the meantime, Stuart has another Kickstarter campaign already on the go, for a 40 page Ghost Story due in early January called Epilogue.  As I've said, Stuart's comics are worth having in physical form, they are beautiful objects and the prints, posters and tee-shirts that he has as extra's on his Kickstarter campaigns are beautiful.   So, do yourself a favour and sign up on Kickstarter now for one of the physical rewards on the Epilogue campaign and try out the three part Monologue series in whatever form you can find them in.