Purely by chance, I picked up a leaflet for an exhibition called “Wrongdoing in Spain and England in the Long Ninteenth Century” while waiting for a bus one day. It’s an exhibiton focused around sensationalised crime reporting in the 18th and 19th centuries, in Britain (there’s also one item from the USA) and Spain. The leaflet mentioned the magic word “chapbook”, which were small, cheap books that the penny dreadfuls eventually evolved out of. Indeed, one of the earliest “penny dreadfuls” was The Newgate Calendar, a series of magazines or pamphlets with lurid biographies of criminals who were being executed. Though it was “factual”, no doubt many of the details were heavily romanticised, if not simply invented. Of course, later Penny Dreadfuls featured real-life criminals such as Dick Turpin or Charles Peace, in almost entirely fictional stories. So, though this exhibiton is intended more as a look at the origins of today’s tabloids, it’s just as relevant to the origins of British comics!
It was the first time I’d been to the university library, and it’s a pretty imposing building up close. But then again, some stupid by-law says that the library tower must always be the tallest building in Cambridge. That might have been alright when it was built, but in these days of a housing crisis it’s absolute madness. Just think, the great minds of Cambridge must have helped to build the empire, that vast endeavour to “civilise the barbarians”. Barbarians living in places like Hong Kong:
Just look at the magnificent, forward-looking cities those “barbarians” now live in. Then look at the jumped-up mud hut we’re stuck with:
It’s even got narrow windows for chucking spears out of.
Perhaps the barbians need to come and civilise us!
Anyway, the exhibition itself is held in a small room off to one side of the entrance hall (you don’t need an ID card to get into that part). It’s arranged by theme, rather than by age – the themes including “moral guidance” (stories for children showing the consequences of a life of crime), “weapons” (one Spanish publication featuring giant scissors!), “monsters” and, of course “news reporting”.
Photos are prohiobited inside, of course, so here’s the scanned leaflet instead XD
At the time, Spain was far less literate, so their moral guidance, and re-telling of famous crime stories, was in the form of a series of small illustrations with simple verses underneath. These were called Aleluya’s, though now that I look on Wikipedia, apparently the English translation is Auca, and they’re mainly a Catalan tradition(?). Anyway, their influence on later comic strips is clear (indeed, take away the narrative stories at the sides of Rupert strips, and you basically have Aleluya!). A lot of them were on large, single broadsheets and told two stories – one of virtue, which ends up with an old man being respected by all, and about to ascend to heaven, and one of vice, which end with a comparitively young man commiting suicide under a bridge, surrounded by empty bottles. There is also one US-made “Aleluya”, from Kansas, which is in colour! (albiet very bright, high-contrast colours).
The British side of the exhibion is more varied, featuring Chapbooks for children (some of them are very small, smaller than A6 size, and only about 8-12 pages of thin newsprint, no wonder so few have survived!), handbills giving details of wanted criminals and upcoming hangings, and penny dreadfuls. The section for monsters includes a bound volume of Varney the Vampyre (incredibly rare – though you can buy the story as a modern paperback, it doesn’t feature the illustrations!). There’s also an Aldine Library from the 1880’s, and a 6d pocket book in a similar format to the Sexton Blake Library (though it’s cover design and 6d price implies it’s from the 30’s, hardly the ninteenth century!)
If you can get there, this exhibition is well worth seeing. It’s quite small (you should be able to see it all inside an hour) but packs a lot in. It’s running until the 23rd of December. I was a bit annoyed to discover that there’s no book to accompany it. Apparently the Spanish material is it’s main focus, and it’s linked to a project being run by the Department of Spanish and Portugese. But maybe one day they will write up all their findings from both sets of stuff, and publish that. I beleive a book related to just the Spanish side of things has already come out… I may have to troll down the Cambridge University Press shop and get it!