Having spent a great deal of my life as a great big fat guy naturally I’ve taken an interest in how my kind was depicted in North American comic books and strips. I’ve made an extensive study of the subject and found, interestingly enough, few of them were obsessively interested in food. J. Wellington Wimpy, Homer Simpson and professional Homer Simpson impersonator Ralph Drabble immediately spring to mind, but these are the exceptions which prove the rule. Which is what made Britain’s Billy Bunter such a revelation. I first discovered him in the comedy two-pagers drawn by Reg Parlett in 1960′s issues of the British boys adventure weekly Valiant.
But I quickly learned the character has a rich history going back decades (George Orwell was a fan) which included appearances in novels…
… and his own television show.
To quote Wikipedia Billy was “dishonest, greedy, pathologically self-centered, snobbish, conceited, lazy, cowardly, mean-spirited and stupid’. He lived to eat and was endlessly plotting to pilfer food from the school kitchen or off of one of the younger boys and honestly believed that by virtue of his appetite (and make no mistake, to Bunter gluttony was no vice) he was legitimately entitled to it.
When he was thwarted (which he inevitably was, barring special occasions such as the Christmas strip posted above) he would become righteously infuriated and would deal with his inevitable violent comeuppance with his signature yowl of “Yarooh” (“horray” spelled backwards). As you will find there is absolutely nothing remotely likable about Billy Bunter, and yet there is something almost admirable about the way such a meticulously detailed monster was completely immune from outside opinion regarding his habits or person.
He rolled through life driven by equal parts hunger, undeserved self esteem, rage and utter contempt for all things not Bunter and faced down the loathing of the entire world with utter indifference. If he even knew he was fat (and there is some question that he did) he couldn’t have cared less.
Originally William George Bunter was just a supporting player in the Greyfriars School stories by Charles Hamilton that were written under the pen name Frank Richards. They appeared in The Magnet a ’story paper’ , the English equivalent of America’s dime novels which predated their weekly comics. In America the pulps of course killed the dime novel but this wasn’t the case in the UK where the format didn’t entirely die out until the late 1950′s.
And when I say ‘school story” I mean stories devoted to life in British boarding schools. It’s a genre usually considered to be either antique or extinct but what is Harry Potter if not a perfect example of the species — just with, you know wizards and such. School stories have never been particularly popular in America, no doubt due to our (relative) lack of same sex educational institutions where students lived during the school year. The closest the US has to this are boys novels, movies and comics set in military academies.
The Greyfriar School stories usually focused on The Famous Five (no relation to Enid Blyton’s more famous Famous Five); Harry Wharton, Bob Cherry, Hurree Singh, Frank Nugent and Johnny Bull. They were your standard issue squad of virtuous British boys who invariably became involved in adventures revolving around a sport, mysteries and the uncovering of foreign spy rings which conveniently enough tended to operate campus adjacent. At first Bunter just provided occasional comic relief to their exploits, as you can see from a 1950′s Greyfriar story from the weekly Sun.
But Bunter quickly became the break out star of the feature, spinning off into his humorous one-pages, but he still had time to frequently dominate the Greyfriar feature. as seen here in “Billy Bunter’s Birthday”. If you first experience Bunter drawn as a complete cartoon grotesque it’s really more than a little disturbing seeing him drawn in a more realistic fashion.
Even if Bunter’s actions are indefensible, after seeing him kicked him down a flight of stairs it’s kind of hard not to see ‘The Famous Five’ as a bunch of toffy nosed bastards. But Bunter would have his revenge…The Famous Five disappeared without a trace, and when The Magnet ended in 1940 Bunter transferred to Knockout and then Valiant and then TV Comic (I’ve yet to find a copy of TV Comic that had a Billy Bunter strip in it, but hope springs eternal). And the rest of the Greyfriar boys became just nameless extras; it was Bunter’s world, they were just living in it.
And finally, for today anyway, here’s a couple more Billy Bunter strips from Comet which for reasons beyond understanding used a Prince Valiant format of pictures and block of text plus word balloons. Which seems an unnecessarily suspenders and belt sort of format hybrid, to me, anyway.
— Steve Bennett