A Woman in Comics' Ancient History

Most of the women cartoonist names cited by Laurenn McCubbin are familiar to me, but the historic passions of their advocates do not, apparently, carry them much further into the past than the Twentieth Century. Among the names sidelined in this hasty fashion is Marie Duval, pen name of Isabelle Emilie de Tessier, a teenage French woman who was largely responsible for drawing the adventures of Britain’s Ally Sloper (1867 - 1923), who was the world’s first regular comic strip hero. The character’s name suggests his function: in Victorian England slang, “to ‘slope’ meant to abscond without paying, especially the rent (‘slope down the alley’),” according to comics historian David Kunzle in his monumental History of the Comic Strip. Kunzle continues:

“Ally Sloper first trod the boards in the form he was basically to retain all his long life of 66 years: elderly and gangly, bald, disheveled, with a bulbous potato nose, and often flushed as with drink. He bore two sartorial hallmarks, which were almost characters in themselves with adventures of their own: a bizarre and battered stovepipe hat and an outrageous umbrella. The degraded symbols of bourgeois respectability, they became on the head and in the hand of Sloper symbols of disreputability.”

Possibly inspired by Charles Dickens’ Mr. Micawber (in David Copperfield, 1849), Sloper was a blowhard and a poseur; but he was much more in that line—a knave, a coward, a cheat, a thief and a con man, living by his so-called wits. He first appeared in the August 14, 1867 issue of Judy, a weekly cheap rival to Punch, appealing, as its name implies, to women. (At least two of the staff cartoonists, Kunzle says, were women; alas, he doesn’t name them.) Sloper appeared in four more issues of Judy, then disappeared after October 9. He reappeared, however, two years later on December 1, 1869, and he continued thereafter in various kindred publications until 1923.

Although some details of Ally Sloper’s conception and development have been disputed, his creation is usually credited to Charles Henry Ross, a comic novelist and former civil servant, who may (or may not) have been editor of Judy at the magazine’s debut. By the time of Sloper’s return to the magazine in 1869, Ross had assumed editorial control of Judy, and he was married to Tessier, who, according to Kunzle, took over the drawing of Sloper.

Among the competing contentions is the one that maintains Ross both wrote and drew the early Sloper, relinquishing the art chores to Tessier in 1869 but continuing to contribute storylines. The other view is that Tessier was the principal artist from the very beginning. Some misguided souls maintain that Tessier “inked” Ross, difficult to do at the time, when artists drew on woodblocks that were then turned over to engravers to prepare for printing.

But whether Tessier — or, to use her pen name, Duval— solo’d on the first five Sloper strips or not is almost beside the point: no one questions that she drew him after his 1869 return, during his most formative period from 1870 to 1872, a total of 60 distinct appearances. After that, Sloper showed up only about a dozen times a year until about 1877, when, Kunzle says, he began to fade from view.

Still presumably drawn by Duval, Sloper appeared in various annual collections or anthologies (like Ally Sloper’s Comic Kalendar) until 1884, when he was taken over by the Dalziel engraving firm (owners of Judy), which produced Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday for the next eon or so.

Duval died in 1890, but she had presumably surrendered the drawing chores on Sloper about the time Dalziel took over. Dalziel’s Sloper was drawn, starting July 1884, by W.G. Baxter, until his death June 2, 1888, after which W.F. Thomas drew the character for years thereafter.  

Without much dispute, however, Duval was the shaping genius behind Britain’s first continuing comic character, whether or not she worked with her husband on storylines; her name appeared as the byline more often than her husband’s.


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