British Comics at the Fin de Siècle

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Comic Cuts (1890): Cover Page

The release of the first issue of Comic Cuts in 1890 was a turning point in the history of British comics. Before Comic Cuts, there had been a few success stories in the medium – Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday, Scraps, Funny Folks – but never before had a stand-alone comics issue cost a halfpenny. Publisher Alfred Harmsworth, a savvy publicist, advertised this fact relentlessly. In an editorial-cum-manifesto inside the first issue of Comic Cuts, he wrote:

How is it possible for any one to provide an illustrated paper... for a halfpenny? Well, it is possible to do it, but that is all. I feel sure that the public will appreciate the fact that they are getting full value for their money, and will therefore buy the paper in immense numbers weekly.

Harmsworth’s confidence in the buying public was not unwarranted. Comic Cuts flew off the shelves, and only a few weeks later, to satisfy public demand, he released another comic weekly, Illustrated Chips. The success of these two publications got the attention of other publishers, and Cuts and Chips became templates for the dozens of comic magazines that flooded the market in the early nineties. Thus, the image on the left came to epitomize the look of fin de siècle comics.

The influence of illustrated periodicals on Comic Cuts is readily apparent. In his editorial, Harmsworth insists on calling his product a “paper,” and particularly an “illustrated paper.” Unsurprisingly, Harmsworth got his start in the publishing business working for an illustrated periodical, Youth. The owner of Youth was James Henderson, the visionary publisher behind Funny Folks, “the first publication to meet what would probably be the generally accepted definition of a comic.” Working under Henderson and in the world of illustrated periodicals, Harmsworth must have gained an appreciation of the power of image-text. It is understandable, therefore, that he would not only take a chance on Comic Cuts, but have the chutzpah to suggest that the paper would become “the most popular illustrated weekly paper in existence.” He assumed that people had been well-prepared by years of reading illustrated news, and were ready for a more intimate intertwining of words and pictures.

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