Stonehenge, by Denis Gifford

Denis Gifford was born in Forest Hill, London, on Boxing Day 1927. He made his first comic, 'The Ragtime', when he was still a kid. By the time he was fifteen he was spending his homework time drawing adventures of 'Pansy Potter' in The Beano magazine. After a brief spell as junior cartoonist on Reynold's News, he was called into the RAF, where he spent his duty weekends drawing a super-hero comic book, 'Streamline' (1947), for a Manchester publisher. Gifford is also credited with creating 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 he also performed as a comedy act in the late 1940s. 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'. The only comic he created himself was 'Steadfast McStaunch' (1950-1952), which was a mix of puzzles, optical illusions and dot-de-dots. Together with Mick Anglo he worked on 'Space Comics' (1953-1954) and he 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'. He also did 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

However, Gifford is nowadays perhaps better known for his enthusiastic promotion of comics. He collected them 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 comics historians valuable insight in the history of the medium, especially 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 comics 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' in 1971), 19th century comics and picture-stories ('Victorian Comics' in 1974), comics starring Charlie Chaplin ('The Comic Art of Charlie Chaplin' in 1989) and comics released during the 1940s and 1950s ('Comics at War' in 1987, 'Super Duper Supermen! Comic Book Heroes from the Forties and Fifties' in 1992 and 'Space Aces! Comic Book Heroes from the Forties and the Fifties' in 1992). Gifford furthermore 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

Gifford shared his 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 comic artists of his own country. The same year Gifford also launched the Ally Sloper Awards, an annual prize for British comics 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 comics 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 comics creator died, Gifford was usually invited by the press as an expert spokesman or to write down the obituary.

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 specifically about animated films: 'British Animated Films, 1895-1985: A Filmography' (1985). Other genres that were dear to his heart were comedy, science fiction, fantasy and horror. He wrote several books and articles about people such as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel & Hardy, the Goons and Boris Karloff. Gifford also directed a handful 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 British comics production from its earliest beginnings until the present time he was not without controversy. He had a tendency to see his own country as the birthplace of comics, despite the fact that other countries had similar or more ancient comics traditions. Gifford cited William Hogarth as the earliest prototypical comics artist, Thomas Rowlandson's 'Dr. Syntax' (1809) as the first comic strip about a recurring hero and named Thomas Hopkirk's 'The Glasgow Looking Glass' (1825) the first comics magazine in Europe, "perhaps in the world". 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 and German artist Wilhelm Busch, among others. 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 which 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 comics magazine in history, despite the existence of the much older Italian magazine Il Giornalino (1924) and the American publication Detective Comics (1937).

Another controversial matter was his stance against adult comics. Gifford initially didn't like the rise of underground comix in the 1960s and 1970s and felt that drugs, violence and sex had no place in comics. When Tony Harding and Tom Tully's comic strip 'Look Out for Lefty' in the magazine Action caused outrage becaused it depicted football hooliganism Gifford suggested censorship in the style of Frederic Wertham to protect children and adolescents from this filth.

Still, his research and dedication have been of invaluable importance for comics 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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