Invisible Ink: No 183 - Ken Reid

 

British writer-cartoonists rarely got the love and respect shown to their American counterparts. Many worked for DC Thomson, the controversial and secretive Scottish publisher famous for producing The Beano and The Dandy comics. Newspapers rarely allowed artists to retain the rights to their work. Often the original art work disappeared, "borrowed" by members of staff, never to be returned. Comics in Britain were considered ephemeral fun for kiddies, and were never accorded the stature that graphic art reached in Europe.

Ken Reid was born in Manchester in 1919, and began drawing after being confined to bed with a form of tuberculosis. He won a free scholarship to Salford Art School, but was expelled for being caught in a café instead of attending lectures. He set himself up as a commercial artist and began producing "Fudge the Elf" stories, a series that ran from 1938 to 1963, with a war-time break in the Armed Services.

The fantastical Fudge tales were very much of their period, created in a style somewhere between Rupert the Bear and the Toby Twirl books (Twirl was an upright pig in dungarees).

Reid became the foremost children's illustrator of his period. DC Thomson invited him to join The Beano, and in 1953 he created "Roger the Dodger" for them. Although he had been writing his own strips, Reid was now teamed with a writer called Walter Fearne and they produced the wonderfully surreal series "Jonah", about a goofy, idiot sailor who weekly managed to sink a ship in increasingly elaborate ways. The script picked up echoes from the British obsession with incompetent sailors, especially the hit radio series The Navy Lark, in which vessels constantly ran aground. Soon Reid's drawings were so bizarre and dense with contraptions and explosions that he managed to cram up to 30 panels on a page that usually held nine at most.

Reid and his fellow artist, Leo Baxendale (who drew the Bash Street Kids), jumped ship to work on new titles at Odhams Press, where the artists could write their own strips. Reid's imagery grew more grotesque with strips such as "Frankie Stein" and the often deranged "Dare-a-Day Davy", featuring an interactive character whose actions were determined by readers' suggestions. The episodes became so disturbing that they were eventually censored – and one was banned from children's comics entirely. Reid, who died in 1987, inspired a generation of new artists, and Savoy Books has elegantly reprinted his gentler Fudge stories.

 

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