FRED ROBINSON was one of the most individual and delightful comic artists of the golden years of British children's comics, fondly remembered for his depiction of the wartime RAF mischief-makers 'The Gremlins'.
He was born in Walthamstow, east London, in 1912. He left school early at the age of 14, becoming a low-paid office boy at the Cambridge University Press. He had shown a talent for cartooning as a child, copying favourite characters from such penny comics as Chips and Comic Cuts, and continued to develop his drawing by attending Bolt Court Art School during the evenings. Soon he had enough ability to win a position in the art studio of Sir Joseph Causton & Sons' advertising agency. This brought him into contact with the magazine empire of C. Arthur Pearson, and after successfully submitting joke cartoons to their popular boys' weekly The Scout, Robinson joined the staff as a general artist in 1930.
Robinson's ambition was, however, comics, a field in which Pearson's had never been successful. He sketched some samples for the Amalgamated Press, then the world's largest publishing house for popular weeklies, and after four years with Pearson took a position as staff artist in the AP's comic department in the famous Fleetway House, Farringdon Street.
His style was very distinctive and quite unlike the formula funnies drawn by comic-paper veterans such as Bertie Brown and Roy Wilson. For them, the tradition was to follow Tom Browne, the cartoonist who had virtually created British comic style in the 1890s with his two tramps, 'Weary Willie and Tired Tim'. Robinson was of the modern school - he favoured the animated cartoon style of Walt Disney, and his early strips stand out against the sometimes mechanical work of contemporaries.
In 1934 he took over 'Quackie the Duck' in Tiny Tots, a weekly for children who were learning to read. It was this area of cartooning, the so-called 'nursery comics', that would especially appeal to Fred Robinson and would eventually become his speciality.
Meanwhile he created his first original characters, 'Ambrose and Al', for Butterfly 1935. These were a pair of humanised monkeys who looked and behaved remarkably like Laurel and Hardy. Animals in the animated style poured from his pen: 'Pecky the Penguin'; 'Wagger and Jock'; and the extraordinary 'Budge and his Bicycalf', but best were the trio who starred in a new comic, Golden (1937); 'Bruno, Lionel and Percy Piggins', the latter being a greedy pig who wore nothing but a bow tie and a mortar- board.
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Robinson was permitted to freelance, and from 1937 he drew strips for his local newspaper, the Walthamstow Guardian. There was Our Rambling Reporter and a children's strip, Dinkie and Doo, which had its own club and was reprinted in a locally- produced comic book during the war.
In 1938, John L. Bott, a top editor at the AP, devised what was to be that company's finest ever comic. Their first in full-colour photogravure, Happy Days was a sumptuous tuppenny, and number one (8 October 1938) came with three free gifts. Roy Wilson, the country's top comic artist, drew the cover and Robinson was given the back page. For him it was a dream come true, a vast tabloid space to lay out as he wished, and a full palette of colours. Crazy Castle, a fun- filled fantasy of a boy and girl involved in all manner of wacky happenings, broke from the rigidly panelled tradition of British strips and wandered all over the page, as if set in an X-ray image of a crumbling old castle. Unhappily, Happy Days failed: it lost its gravure in favour of cheap letterpress, and finally wound up incorporated with Chicks Own.
It was the eve of the Second World War, and with paper rationing British comics collapsed and shrank by the carload. However, it would be the war years that would bring Fred Robinson his greatest and best-remembered success. The legend of the Gremlins was born, invisible goblins who caused all the trouble for the RAF. If ever a Spitfire found itself in difficulties, it was never the mechanic's fault, and certainly not the pilot's - It's the Gremlins] Inspired, Robinson visualised the pesky elves as bugs, and using the catchphrase as his title launched 'The Gremlins' in Knockout, one of the best and highest circulation comics of the period, on 2 January 1943.
Beginning as a full-page strip, 'The Gremlins', a gang led by Gurch of Gremlin Grange, gradually changed in format until it turned into one single full-page cartoon in which the little creatures created their own version of some popular event, ranging from the Lord Mayor's Show to their own underground railway system. Robinson was fond of filling every odd corner with posters, and youngsters of the period chuckled at such mottoes as 'Cure for Foot Trouble - Walk on Your Hands]' and 'Coffs and Sneezes Causes Breezes]' After a six-year run, the Gremlins were retired, but in 1967 Fred revamped them as 'The Chuckles' for a comic called Giggle.
In the post-war period, Robinson was made the AP's first comic Art Director, supervising a new weekly, Jack and Jill (1954). This was the company's first photogravure effort since the ill-fated Happy Days, and this time it was a success. Of extremely high quality in all departments, it filled the nursery need for an equivalent of the older boy's Eagle, and Fred himself drew the colourful series Fun in Toyland, Jolly Jingles and Flipper the Skipper.
In 1966 Fred finally left Fleetway House and joined a new company, Polystyle Publications, which specialized in the new trend of children's television adaptations. Here he drew the adventures of 'Sooty and Sweep' for Playland, and the puppet series Chigley and Trumpton for Pippin (1973). His excellent artwork on these strips was only excelled by his colour work for the comics' Christmas annuals.
Surprisingly, after so many years as a comic artist, Fred Robinson abandoned the field and turned his brush to painting, with great, if somewhat local, success. However, his readers never forgot his comic strips, and in 1982 the Association of Comics Enthusiasts presented him with their Ally Sloper Award for a lifetime's achievement.
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