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Monday, May 28, 2012

COMIC BOOK COMPULSIVE — Billy Bunter — The Fat Owl of Greyfriars

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.


Steveland

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8 Responses to “COMIC BOOK COMPULSIVE — Billy Bunter — The Fat Owl of Greyfriars”

  1. Happenstance Says:

    Reg Parlett’s excellent work is the primary factor in my own fascination with Bunter. (Even if an axe head of those dimensions makes even less sense than–ugh–warmed fruit juice. Oh, those Brits!) Nevertheless, these peeks at other versions of the Heavyweight Chump of Greyfriars are terrific! Bunter’s so capable of transitioning between high camp and serious drama and everything in between, he could bloody well be Batman.

    I’ve always had a fondness for harmless comic would-be villains who persevere in their wicked ways despite a very losing track record, and I figure I’m not alone; Gru (Despicable Me), Wile E. Coyote, et al. are hugely popular for little better reason than their underdog’s determination in the face of endless crushing failure. (One of my more obscure favorites is Gold Key’s two-or-three shot back-up ’60s Batman spoof “Batty,” an avaricious little costumed bat with an muggsy green hornet for a sidekick, whose schemes always went awry and accidentally saved the day from greater criminals, much to the little creep’s shame.)

    Thanks again!

  2. Steve Bennett Says:

    Thanks for the encouragement to do more COMPULSIVES with Bunter…please, if you have a couple of minutes, could you read it again? I usually go over these things a couple of times until I’m absolutely satisfied with him…and I was particularly unhappy with the first version of this one. Hopefully this version reads a lot better.

    Now that I know I have an audience I plan on doing at least one more on BUNTER.

    Thanks,
    Steve

  3. Comics A.M. | New York Comic Con absorbs New York Anime Festival | Robot 6 @ Comic Book Resources – Covering Comic Book News and Entertainment Says:

    [...] Comics | Steve Bennett turns back the clock to the days of tubby schoolboy Billy Bunter, whose misadventures at Greyfriars School entertained generations of British readers. [Super I.T.C.H.] [...]

  4. Happenstance Says:

    No, Steve, thank YOU. The article does read better this time (and the extra images are great). The only quibble I would have is this line, which seems to be missing a word:

    “there is something almost admirable about the way such a meticulously detailed _____ was completely immune from outside opinion…”

    About Bunter’s lack of self-awareness: It’s true, and while it’s horribly common in real life I don’t think anyone pulls it off quite like Bunter, particularly in “Billy Bunter’s Birthday Party”–bewailing his mates’ lack of trust in him even as he plots to steal from them, by destroying school property no less!

    “…after seeing them kick him down a flight of stairs it’s kind of hard not to see ‘The Famous Five’ as a bunch of toffy nosed bastards”

    Also very true. And it’s probably why Bunter ultimately prevailed; he may be driven beyond empathy or rationality by his uncontrolled wants, but the Five on the other hand want for nothing but still casually abuse Bunter at every turn (because, as everyone knows, fat people are such damned fine sport!).

    As for characters with food obsession: Something I’ve always found strange from comics would be the Fat Kid With Fruit. Little Lulu’s friend Tubby or Little Lotta were occasionally seen enjoying an ice cream cone or cake, but more often than not they were noshing on a banana or apple. I don’t know if it was because it was easier to draw, or because fruit distributors didn’t advertise in comic books, but the message it sent was definitely garbled.

  5. George Says:

    Hi,
    A quick comment about the picture from the “television show”. The picture was taken from one of three Billy Bunter (Billie Turf) movies made by Dutch filmmaker Henk van der Linden. Billy Bunter was published in the Dutch comic weekly ‘Sjors’ from 1969 onwards.
    Henk van der Linden also made about 8 films about ‘Sjors en Sjimmie’, which is a Dutch version of Perry Winkle and the Rinkeydinks.

  6. Steve Bennett Says:

    Thanks for pointing this out — I really should have known better, seeing as how the image is in color. Believe I actually knew about Billy Bunter as Billy Turf and was going to mention this in a future COMPULSIVE. I’ve changed the image to a cover of a DVD of the TV show.

  7. Steve Bennett Says:

    Part of my problem is I’m a 52 year old man who still suffers from ‘childhood’ dyslexia, so as you might imagine editing myself can be quite a bear. I just read and reread and write and rewrite until I can get it close to what I want. I’m not complaining, well, not any more than I usually do anyway.

    I’ve decided to do two sequels, “Billy Bunter, The Fattest Schoolboy On Earth” (focusing on Frank Minnitt’s strips from Knockout, which I actually prefer to Reg Parlett’s, as much as I like his work) and “Billy Bunter, The Heavy Weight Chump of Greyfriars”. I also still have more than a trace of ADHD — I get obsessed with subjects and just run with them until I get bored.

  8. Michael Says:

    “Also very true. And it’s probably why Bunter ultimately prevailed; he may be driven beyond empathy or rationality by his uncontrolled wants, but the Five on the other hand want for nothing but still casually abuse Bunter at every turn (because, as everyone knows, fat people are such damned fine sport!).”

    I’ve never read such rubbish in my life. I have been reading the work of Frank Richards for over 30 years. Have you actually read the Magnet, Gem or any of the Bunter books. I doubt it!

I.T.C.H is looking forward to your thoughts. Please, no flame. Thanks!

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