Sunday, October 29, 2017

The Leopard from Lime Street

You can sort-of picture the scene when, sometime in 1937, two kids from Ohio burst into the offices of DC Comics with their pitch for a new character. Alien news reporter. Secret identity. Red cape. Champion of the common man. You can't really imagine anything similar ever happening at DC Thompson.

“I’ve hud thes idea fur a freish comic strip. It’s abit a skale bairn aboot ages wi’ oor readers! N’ gie thes — he’s naughty! An’ gei thes — some weeks he gits aw’ wi’ it, and some weeks he gits intae trooble!”

“Brilliant jimmy, stoatin! It will rin fur sixty seven years!”

American comics were exciting, colorful, thrilling. British comics just existed: ephemeral, forgettable, disposable. And mostly black and white. If some American comics thought they were literature (pulp literature), British comics were more like daily newspapers. Part of the background of life. If some Americans dreamed of someday writing the great American novel, most Brits were craftsmen, artisans, dutifully bashing out the same tales of naughty kids, silly teachers and nasty Germans that they’d been telling for the past half a century. 

And yet kids read them; or, at any rate, parents bought them. Not just the Beano and the Dandy, but a seemingly endless parade of weekly anthology comics with names like Cheeky, Topper, Whizzer, Krazy and Buster.

There were exceptions. The Eagle had been started by a vicar, for goodness sake. In my day, swotty kids had a thing called Look and Learn, although we suspected that they were more interested in the Trigon Empire than the photo features about daily life in a Dutch fish refinery. But comics like that were supposed to be good for you. The whole point of the Dandy and Cheeky and Buster was that they were just a little bit naughty. 

Mike Taylor
recently wrote a piece about an early 2000AD strip called Harlem Heroes and said that he was still struck by the visceral power of the story and art. 2000AD was, by the standards of 1970s comics, very naughty indeed: the violence of it can still take your breath away. But how did an English comic strip by a white artist for mainly white kids come to be called Harlem Heroes? Basketball wasn’t very widely played in England although Globetrotters exhibition games had been shown in late night slots on BBC2. But 2000AD's target demographic would be more likely to have remembered a cut-and-paste Hannah-Barbara cartoon series which had been on children's TV a couple of years before. Harlem Heroes is simply the Harlem Globetrotters playing futuristic death basketball. It’s hard to say if Pat Mills was being shamelessly derivative, or producing a shockingly poor taste parody.

It wasn’t so much a question of cultural appropriation as of grabbing everything within arms reach and running away with it. If there had been a summer blockbuster about a shark them the English comic book artisans would scribble out a violent strip called Hookjaw and a silly strip called Gums in time for the Autumn specials. If that year's hit movie involved a marooned alien making friends with some American schoolkids, then some hack would rush out a comic about some English kids and a crashed flying saucer occupant. I don’t know if the kids noticed, or were supposed to notice. I don’t think we engaged with the material to that extent. Comics had always been, and cold only ever be, mildly diverting knock-offs of better books, or anachronistic little squibs about pea-shooters and canes and German spies. That was why the launch of American style superhero comics made such a massive impact on us. 

Buster was typical of the era. When it launched in 1960 the title character had been the son of Andy Capp, the outrageously un-PC Geordie who appeared (and still appears) every day in the Daily Mirror. But by 1976, he was just a generic Dennis the Menace character who played pranks and clashed with authority figures. A list of the other features in the comic is enough to generate feelings of suicidal ennui: Ivor Lott and Tony Broke (with Milly O’Naire and Penny Less); Kid Kong; Lucy Lastic; X-Ray Specs; James Pond... Adam Adman was “A young man obsessed by advertising”; Jack Pot was “a boy with exceptional luck” and Joker was “a boy obsessed with jokes”. This is how young people amused themselves before Minecraft was invented. 

The Leopard from Lime Street appeared in Buster from 1976 to 85. (The first year's worth have just been reprinted by Rebellion.) He is often said to be “England’s first superhero” or “Britain’s answer to Spider-Man”. But reading these episodes 40 years later, it feels less like a British attempt to do Marvel Comics and more like a gag strip that accidentally got drawn in a serious style. Yes, the Leopard wears a costume and, on occasion, catches robbers. But he’s also a schoolboy who deals with bullies and outwits nasty grown ups and earns himself treats by means of a special gimmick. 

It all starts when Billy Farmer is, and I promise I’m not making this up, scratched by a radioactive leopard. (Not a lion or a tiger or even a wolf. A flippin’ leopard.) He decides to make himself a leopard costume, as you would, and uses his strength to thwart a crime wave that is going on in his town. He starts selling photos of himself in action to the local newspaper, the Selbridge Sun. But the editor — one Thaddeus (yes, Thaddeus) Clegg (yes, Clegg) takes against him, and twists all the news stories to make it seem as if the Leopard is a baddie. 

If British comics are a celebration of naughtiness, there is a joyful shamelessness in the way writer Tom Tully scrumps the good bits from his more famous American template. Peter Parker has the proportional strength of a spider; Billy Farmer is as strong as a fully grown jungle cat. Peter Parker has his spider-sense: Billy gets danger signals from his Leopard’s sixth sense. Spider-Man has his webbing; Billy has a grappling rope. In the early installments, artist Mike Western even makes use of a Gemini motif, showing Billy’s face as half-human and half-leopard. It’s all so outrageous that it sometimes feels less like swiping and more like dead-pan parody. Viz is still twelve years in the future. 

On the first page of the very first episode, one Ginger Moggs dangles Billy from the roof of the school cycle sheds on the the end of a rope. (Cycle sheds are an important part of British scholastic iconography: most early experiments with tobacco and heterosexuality take place behind them.) A friendly teacher extracts Billy from his predicament, but he, nobly refuses to “split” on the bullies. But a few episodes later, he gets his own back. “Mogsy” tries to climb the clock tower as a dare, and has to be rescued by Billy in his leopard persona. Mogsy ends up blindfolded, believing that he’s dangling off a high tower by his own belt — even though the Leopard has in fact left him only a few inches off the ground! This is very much the kind of thing that might have happened to Dennis the Menace: a massively exaggerated prank followed by equally far-fetched consequences. Mogsy is cured of being a bully, but there is a steady stream of louts with names like Stacey and Nogsy to torment Billy in subsequent installments.

When Billy starts selling photos to the Daily Bugle — I’m sorry, to the Selbridge Sun — he uses the money to purchase a colour television, still very much an aspirational item in 1976. When he rescues a kidnapped TV actress, he is rewarded with a ride back to school in a Rolls Royce; and when he wins £250 for surviving three rounds in the ring with the Masked Hangman, he uses the money to replace the vandalized basketball court at his youth club. This is a long way from Peter Parker pawning his microscope to pay for Aunt May’s heart surgery: it’s a lot more like that great big plate of sausages and mashed potato that has signified “reward” in English comics since the days of food rationing. He intends to use his very first pay check to buy a bag of groceries for his poor family, but when he steps into “Mason’s Magnificent Mart” he finds that he is the one millionth customer and can take home “all the goods that he can collect in exactly one minute”. Naturally, due to his superpowers, he manages to walk away with more or less the whole shop. The “one millionth customer” thing is a pretty standard cartoon trope.

It is the artwork which does the most to transpose the strip into a serious register. It’s consistently and impressively naturalistic. We have more of a sense of what Billy Farmer’s habitat looks like than we do of Peter Parker’s. There are PE lessons and supermarkets and TV showrooms. The Daily Bugle is based in a shiny Madison Avenue skyscraper; the Selbridge Sun seems to be published out of a dingy converted-shop front with offices to rent on the second floor. But inside there are filing cabinets and pots of ink and in-trays and actual members of staff. But at the same time Selbridge is a kind of dream-world. Billy's school is dreary collection of 1950s concrete boxes: clearly a Secondary Modern rather than a Comprehensive. But when there needs to be, there is an old fashioned castellated building with a flagpole and a clock tower for Mogsy to climb. The town is mostly a grim collection of terraced houses, labour exchanges and youth clubs — but there can be a ruined abbey and a stately home within striking distance when the plot calls for it.

There is a surprisingly consistent — logical, if not actually realistic — treatment of Billy’s life as

a super-hero. Billy makes his leopard suit by finding the costume he wore when he played the cat in a school production of Dick Whittington and painting spots on it. When he decides he needs a grappling rope, he conveniently find a “claw like ornament” on a set of old fire tongs and fixes it on the end of a rope. Peter Parker gets his powers due to, er, “fate”; but Billy is deliberately sent to Prof. Jarman’s experimental zoo to interview him for the school magazine. Jarman has deliberately injected the leopard which scratches Billy with a “radioactive serum”. The origin is followed up in several subsequent strips: Jarman wants to give Billy medical check ups to see if he is suffering any ill-effects from the scratch, and Billy and the leopard become good friends. The latter ends up living fairly happily ever after in the local safari park. 

Billy lives with a predictably kindly Aunt and an unexpectedly horrible Uncle — a bald, unemployed man with a mustache, rolled up sleeves, open topped shirt and braces. In the next decade unemployment would come to be indelibly associated with Mrs Thatcher: young people resigned to years on the dole, politicians urging them to get on their bikes, Youth training schemes and Enterprise Allowance culture. But in 1976, the stereotype of an unemployed person was still a lazy middle-aged man who wastes his dole money at the betting shop. That's why Billy uses his photo money to buy TVs and groceries: if he handed the cash over, his Uncle would put it on a horse. Eventually, as the Leopard, Billy scares Uncle Charlie into going to the labour exchange and looking for work. He seems to find a job quite easily once he starts looking.

We can see just how nasty Uncle Charlie is supposed to be from the tag line of the third episode: “Billy uses his new powers to avoid a beating from his guardian!” The gag strips notoriously represented corporal punishment as a rather funny occupational hazard of being a kid; but the straight ones equally consistently use it to indicate that an adult is bad parent, an impostor, and incidentally, lower class. While the various Menaces are amusingly spanked across their parents' knees Uncle Charlie strikes the side of Billy’s head with the back of his hand, so hard that he is said to go to bed with ringing ears and a headache; and threatens to flog him with a belt. But we are assured that Billy’s leopard strength means that Uncle Charlie can’t really hurt him any more (even though he muses about paying him back for all the “hidings” he’s had in past). So maybe we aren’t so far from Roger the Dodger slipping a book down the back of his trousers after all?

This is perhaps the biggest difference of outlook between Spider-Man and his British parody. Billy actually gets to do stuff: to make small, but positive and permanent improvements to his own life. The readership’s need to say “If I had amazing powers, I know what I would do…” is consistently indulged. Let me assure you: if, at the age of 13, I had gained the powers and abilities of a fully grown leopard “dangling the bully from the tree” and “getting a colour TV” would have been first and second on my to do list. Groceries, not so much. Billy not only gets his own back on the bullies: they actually lay off bullying him. He not only avoid being hit by his nasty uncle: he forces him to go and get a job. He goes from being the classroom pariah who doesn’t have a telly to being the lucky kid with a spiffy colour one. 

Strips like this have to sustain themselves on simple ideas — hence the plethora of “young lad with a toy soliders than comes to life” and “young girl whose best friend is a ghost” strips elsewhere. Two pages is not very long to develop a story: no-one is characterised beyond their basic function of cruel uncle, kind aunt, understanding teacher, bully, crook, copper. Even Billy himself is more internal monologue than human being. The only thing that will make the reader come back is a wish to find out what happens next; so every two pages, something has to happen. If the school is going on a coach trip to a safari park then of course one of the Dads is going to use the excursion as a pretext to steal silver from the stately home, and of course his bully of a son is going to push Billy into an empty lion cage and of course the cage is going to turn out to have a leopard in it and of course that leopard is going to be the very one loaned to the zoo by a certain scientist. The whole thing will be dried and dusted in 16 pages, but eked out over two months.

Spider-Man is a timeless classic. The Leopard of Lime Street seems like a dispatch from a different world. But as a piece of archive material, it’s worth acquainting oneself with.


Andrew Rilstone is a writer and critic from Bristol, England. 

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JAn said...

Probably not a coincidence that Australia's oldest and longest running - since the 1920s - comic strip is about a naughty boy named Ginger Meggs.

Gavin Burrows said...

"In my day, swotty kids had a thing called Look and Learn, although we suspected that they were more interested in the Trigon Empire than the photo features about daily life in a Dutch fish refinery. "

Well alright then, yes! Who was it who gave the game away?

Mike Taylor said...

For some reason, I bought the first volume of reprints last week. I'm impressed: it stands up better than I expected, and really isn't inferior to its *ahem* inspiration — except in the sense a copy is always and inherently inferior to an original.

What strikes me most about the artwork, aside from the sheer level of detail, is how superbly the Leopard is drawn: as recognizably a superhero, but also definitely a boy rather than a man. Peter Parker is sometimes referred to as a teen-ager in early issues (always with the hyphen) but is clearly functioning as a young man, even when he's in high school. Billy is not like that. He's a child. And as such, a rather better audience-identification figure, for the kids who read these comics, than Spider-Man was.