Sunday, 2 October 2016

Butterfly: Come for the horrific racism, stay for the pretty cool alien robots

Let's go back further than we've ever gone before....
Presenting Butterfly, from July 1939.

To put some historical context to this, it is less than a year since the first issue of The Beano was published and less than two months since the first Batman story.

This one proved tricky to research, my usual sources had no information but I now know it was launched in 1904 and ceased publication in 1940. My copy is a reprint from I know not where.

It's an 8-page combination of comic strips and illustrated adventure stories. The strips all have wordy commentaries beneath the panels, as was common at the time.

There's a little rhyme above the title which, due to the size of the printing, my scanner cuts off part of. It refers to the comic as "the jolly old Butt" which is upsetting.

So let's crack on with the cover stars: Smiler and Smuge The Carraway College Comics.

Ugh. It's going to be one of those, is it? 

Yep, an hilarious blackface caricature who talks like Rochester and is described as "the pocket-sized coon".
"Breaf ob fresh air"?

In the strip's defence, Smudge is the smart one, tricking Smiler out of some cash in order to take a boat trip (the Angeline mentioned above is a boat) and after goes after him in a dinghy...
...he ends up accidentally scooping up a load of fish into the lap of a nearby angler.
Slap up feast all round!

Page two gives us a character that would not have looked out of place in Judy or Mandy. Cindy Lee, Drudge of Her Selfish Sisters. 
A text story of a put-upon girl whose father remarried and uses her good-old British pluck to deal with her vicious step-sisters. This week, an invitation to an evening of tennis is nearly thwarted. 
I love seeing these illustrations that mean so little out of context. It made Glen Baxter's entire career.

Below that is The Sailor Detective, the adventures of ship-bound law-enforcement. This week: The Missing Stamp Collection!
It's one of those stories where you, the reader, are invited to spot the clue that gives away the real thief. The answer is on page 7.

Next up, a full page serial story, The Forest Phantom.
Our hero has found himself caught up in a nefarious scheme of Mortimer Grevelle, Squire of Dean who means to have him done in, going so far as to hire an American criminal called Oneshot Krale. 
Fortunately our hero finds himself protected by a woodland mystery man known only as the Forest Phantom. Who does not feature in this chapter at all.

Oh, and our hero is called Alan Carr, which made it difficult to take seriously.
Next comes a five-panel humour strip with a ridiculously long title: The Quaint and Amusing Antics of Ping, the Panda, the Popular Pet. Presented here in its entirety, 
And, for the record, Pandas are not a popular pet. Nor should they be.

Ping shares his page with the first of our serialised comic strips: The Dagger of Amulla. 
Simba, the Elephant Boy, a slightly more sympathetic representation of a person of colour, is on a quest to retrieve a stolen dagger which may be the key (figuratively and literally) to a lost treasure. He travels with a white girl in jodhpurs called Connie, who may not be a Strong Female Lead but it's still pleasing to see a girl adventuring in this time period.
An encounter with a kind old beggar (a sympathetic Muslim character, also rare) leads them to the man who stole the dagger and a daring midnight raid...
What happens next? I'll never know.

This is immediately followed by another serialised adventure strip on a quest for an important artefact. Detective duo Spotsem and Getsem (Getsem is a dog) are searching for The Jewelled Carrot.
This one is more comedic in style and tone and this chapter has our plucky sleuths tracking the ne'er-do-wells the Ivy Road Creepers to a museum where they hide the decorative vegetable in a dinosaur bone.
However, before Spotsem can retrieve the blinged-out daucus, it in snatched by a passing hungry stray dog. A gag that would become something of a comic strip cliche. 
By the time they get the bone back (by offering the mutt a fresh ham bone in place) the jazzed-up taproot is gone!

What happens next? I'll never know.

Beneath that is a short comedy story of a family fun called The Jolly Days.
In this strip the brother and sister prank their dad and abscond with the food hamper.
Given the ubiquity of corporal punishment in the comics of the 1970s and 80s with which I grew up (the reason this blog is called The Slipper) I'm genuinely surprised to see Dad threatening "a good talking to" in the final panel. I guess we learned less about child welfare as the century progressed before learning more.

Another self-contained text adventure story next with Prince of the Mounties.
RCMP Terry Prince is everything we'd come to expect from the cliche of the do-gooding mountie from Dudley Do-Right to Benton Fraser.

In this story he's partnered with a hot-headed new recruit who resents following the rules and leads them into trouble!
A short story on the same page stars a lion cub called Rora.
I got wasted at work once. It was a bad time for me. No-one noticed.


The story has Rora wandering around his jungle home before getting caught in a vicious storm. Which begs the question: Why is there a lion cub (and indeed his whole family) living in a jungle? Their natural home is the grasslands of Africa but here they appear to be in an Indian jungle with monkeys. Either there is a back story here or the writer did no research and took the "king of the jungle" thing literally. I'm going with the former, for fairness' sake.

There's an ad on this page too, for badly-titled story weekly Sports Budget.
Ace Hart News-Reel Knockout, I will never encounter you again.

A young boy's wish-fulfilment story next, with If----!
Young Toby was given some magic green powder by "an Indian fakir". Malcolm McDowell played him in the movie.
Toby didn't have the best imagination.

He shares his page with some shorter cartoons...
...and a sort-of letters column featuring a man you wouldn't leave your children with, Uncle Bertram.
The address leads me to believe this publisher would become Fleetway Comics.
Advice there on how to trick someone into giving you money by pretending to be homeless. With no negative consequences.
Oh, and here on page 7 we find out that Tom Main, Sailor Detective knew Mr Harrap was lying because he wasn't wet. And if he had been up on deck he'd have known it was raining. I worked it out. I'm dead clever, me.

The back cover gives us a fine science fiction serial strip Into Unknown Worlds.
Joan and John, plucky sister/brother team are on the alien planet Nevus, looking for their kidnapped uncle, Professor Ramon.

To put some slight historical context, sci-fi is still in its infancy. we're less than 20 years since the word robot was coined and five years since the creation of Flash Gordon, for example.

Now look at that alien car and the pterodactyl-ish alien beast flying beneath the bridge. 
The villain of the piece, Skorpio (he'll sting you with his dreams of power and wealth), is taking a "hypnotic gas chair" back to his lair to use it on the Prof. J&J negotiate their way through an energy beam to follow.
There's a Futurama-style transparent tube for transport.

But how to get in the lair without being spotted?
I love the design of these robots. I wish I could credit the artist.
They remove the "wires, batteries and valves" from the insides so they can wear the robots' skin. I love it when old-timey sci-fi has "valves".

Meanwhile, Skorpio is in discussion with his henchman, both looking like drag queens.
John follows him and beats him over the head with his heavily-armoured robot fist.
That guy's dead, right?

And finally they are re-united with their uncle!
"Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?"

What happens next? I'll never know.

All in all, Butterfly is a mixed bag. Its style was going out of fashion (thanks to new titles like the Dandy and The Beano) and I imagine the paper rationing of the war years took its toll. Still, 36 years is pretty impressive. And apparently Peter O'Donnell (creator of Modesty Blaise) cut his teeth writing there.

Till next time, when we look at something more contemporary.