Stonehenge, by Denis Gifford

Denis Gifford was a British comic artist and historian. The first half of his career was spent being part of comics history, the second half promoting and archiving it. He drew and wrote both superhero comics, humor comics, western comics and puzzle comics. Most were continuations of other artists' series, but he also created series of his own. 'Mr. Muscle' (1945), 'Streamline' (1947) and 'Tiger-Man' (1949) popularized the superhero genre in Great Britain, while his puzzle comic 'Steadfast McStaunch' (1950-1952) challenged little readers' brains. Later he became one of Britain's most foremost comic experts. He build up a colossal collection which was the largest in his country! Gifford published various books, articles and catalogues about the medium. The man also established several comic fanzines, conventions and the short-lived Ally Sloper Award. He laid the foundations for the Comics Creators Guild and Association of Enthusiasts. His efforts not only helped gaining comics more respectability, but also uncovered valuable information and saved it for future generations.

Early life and comics career
Denis Gifford was born in 1927 in Forest Hill, London, on Boxing Day. He made his first comic, 'The Ragtime', when he was still a kid. By the time he was fifteen he spent his homework time drawing adventures of 'Pansy Potter' (a creation by Hugh McNeill) in The Beano magazine. After a brief spell as junior cartoonist on Reynold's News, he was drafted into the RAF, where he spent his duty weekends drawing a superhero comic book, 'Streamline' (1947), for a Manchester publisher. Gifford created the superheroes 'Mr. Muscle' (1945), who appeared in Dynamic Comics, and 'Tiger-Man' (1949). While not the first British superheroes in history (that honour goes to Nat Brand's 'Derickson Dene' from 1939) Gifford can be credited with popularizing the genre in his native country.

After the war, Gifford set up a studio with future comedian Bob Monkhouse, with whom, in the late 1940s, he also performed as a comedy act. Gifford produced complete comics for many small publishers and joined Knockout magazine, where he took over the popular favorites 'Our Ernie' (created by Charles Holt, 1950) and 'Stonehenge Kit the Ancient Brit'. Gifford and Monkhouse also drew and edited Fizz Comics (1949) and Star Comics (1954), which featured celebrity comics about the comedians Morecambe and Wise, Jill Day, Monkhouse himself and movie character Tobor The Great. He also created the puzzle comic 'Steadfast McStaunch' (1950-1952): a mix of puzzles, optical illusions and dot-de-dots. Together with Mick Anglo he worked on 'Space Comics' (1953-1954) and joined Anglo's studio soon afterwards. There he worked on their popular superhero 'Marvelman' and the gag comics 'Flip and Flop' and 'The Friendly Soul'. He also provided western comics such as 'Gunhawks Western' (1960-1961) and 'Our Lad' (1961), as well as the gag comic 'Dan Dan the TV Man'. Gifford additionally drew the daily satire strip 'Telestrip' in the London Evening News. Other comics he worked on were 'Simon the Simple Sleuth', 'William Wagtail' and 'Dicky Diddle'. For some reason, Denis Gifford was allowed to sign his work, when most of the other British and Scottish artists working for publisher DC Thompson remained anonymous to their readership.

'Steadfast McStaunch'.

Comics collecting and writing
However, Gifford is nowadays perhaps better known for his enthusiastic promotion of comics. He bought comic books since his youth, eventually amassing a collection which completely took over his house. Even his fridge and oven were used as a storage place! While Gifford also collected foreign comics, he mostly concentrated on British comics. He took an interest in every genre, author, time period and even comic art in other media besides magazines, including merchandising. Soon his collection was the largest of its kind in the United Kingdom. It gave comic historians valuable insight in the history of the medium, especially to Gifford himself, who wrote several articles and over 50 books about the topic.

His 'The British Comics Catalogue, 1874-1974' (1974) was the first standard work on British comic history, followed by the price guides 'British Comics, Story Papers, Picture Libraries, Girls Papers, American Reprints, Facsimilies, Giveaways Price Guide' (1982) and 'Official Comic Book Price Guide for Great Britain' (1989). He also published titles focusing on newspaper comics ('Stap Me! History of the British Newspaper Strip', 1971), 19th-century comics and picture stories ('Victorian Comics', 1974), comics starring Charlie Chaplin ('The Comic Art of Charlie Chaplin', 1989) and comics released during the 1940s and 1950s ('Comics at War'  [1987], 'Super Duper Supermen! Comic Book Heroes from the Forties and Fifties' [1992] and 'Space Aces! Comic Book Heroes from the Forties and the Fifties' [1992]). Gifford also released compilations of comics which originally appeared in magazines such as Eagle, Girl and Boy's Own, including the book 'Cartoon Aid' (1987), of which the profits went to a good cause.

Mr Muscle

Comics promotion
Gifford shared his comics passion with others. As early as the 1950s he published fanzines about comics and by the 1970s he organized several comic conventions. In 1976 he created Comics 101, a convention which focused specifically on British comic artists. The same year Gifford also launched the Ally Sloper Awards, an annual prize for British comic artists. It was named after Charles H. Ross and Émilie de Tessier's iconic 19th century comic character Ally Sloper, which is widely considered to be the birth point of British comics. He even tried to revive the historic Ally Sloper Magazine, but 1976 audiences didn't have particular interest for it and it folded after only four issues. The Ally Sloper Awards also sizzled out in 1982. Gifford co-founded the Society of Strip Illustration (1977), later renamed as The Comic Creators Guild, an organisation for comic writers and artists. A year later a similar organisation, but for fans, was established: The Association of Enthusiasts (1978). This society had its own newsletter, Comic Cuts, and fanzine, The Illustrated Comics Journal.

Gifford felt frustrated that comics had gained social acceptance and academic interest in the United States and Continental Europe, but were still regarded as throwaway pulp in his homeland. Thus he made it a personal quest to warm the British population up to it. He frequently talked about comics on the consumer TV show 'On The Braden Beat' (1962-1967). Together with Bob Monkhouse he hosted the BBC radio shows 'Sixpence for a Superman' (1999) and 'A Hundred Laughs for a Ha'penny' (1999), which chronicled the history of comics. Whenever a notable comic creator died, Gifford was usually invited by the press as an expert spokesman or to write down the obituary.

Film publications
Apart from comics, Gifford also had an interest in film. He personally made comprehensive catalogues of every British film ever made, such as 'The British Film Catalogue, 1895-1970: A Reference Guide' (1970) and one about animated films: 'British Animated Films, 1895-1985: A Filmography' (1985). Comedy, science fiction, fantasy and horror were also dear to his heart. He wrote several books and articles about people such as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, the Goons and Boris Karloff. Gifford also directed a handful of advertising and public information films.

cover by Denis Gifford and W.G. Baxter

While Gifford's passion and efforts did a lot to map the history of British comics production from its earliest beginnings until the present time, he was not without controversy. He tended to see his own country as the birthplace of comics, even though other countries had similar or more ancient comic traditions. Gifford cited William Hogarth as the earliest prototypical comic artist. He named Thomas Rowlandson's 'Dr. Syntax' (1809) the first comic strip with a recurring hero and credited Thomas Hopkirk and John Watson's 'The Glasgow Looking Glass' (1825) as the first comic magazine in Europe, "perhaps in the world", since it featured early comics by William Heath. To him, 'Ally Sloper' (1867) by Charles H. Ross and Émilie de Tessier was the first comic strip in history, ignoring the much older work by Swiss artist Rodolphe Töpffer (1827) and German artist Wilhelm Busch (1865-1866). Gifford's stubbornly kept citing 'Ally Sloper' as the first comic character ever. Even when he visited the Lucca Comics Festival in 1989 and was invited to put his name under an official declaration that hailed Richard F. Outcault's 'The Yellow Kid' (1895) as the debut of modern comics, Gifford did so, but signed it as "Ally Sloper". In the same way, he advocated The Dandy (1937) as the first comic magazine in history, despite the existence of the much older Italian magazines Corriere dei Piccoli (1908), Il Giornalino (1924) and the American publication Detective Comics (1937).

Another controversial matter was his stance against adult comics. Gifford initially didn't like underground comix, which he deemed harmful to minors. When a media frenzy brook out over Tom Tully, Barrie Mitchell  and Tony Harding's comic strip 'Look Out for Lefty' (1976) in Action, because it supposedly encouraged football hooliganism, Gifford jumped on the bandwagon too. He expressed his outrage over these kind of violent and erotic comics, never seeming to understand that they weren't geared at children in the first place. 

Still, his research and dedication have been of invaluable importance for comic fans and historians, despite the fact that he didn't keep a catalogue of his own archive. This made it difficult for auctioneers to get an overview of his private collection after Gifford passed away on 18 May 2000. Even this Comiclopedia owes a lot to the outstanding work of Denis Gifford.

Denis Gifford

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