Written in by Will in 2008
We hope you’ll join us all at 30th Century Comics in raising a glass of fizzy pop to the Fat Owl of Greyfriars School, William George “Billy” Bunter, hero to gluttonous scheming schoolboys everywhere.
Created by prolific author Charles Hamilton, under the pseudonym of Frank Richards, Bunter first appeared in the debut issue of the weekly story-paper Magnet on Saturday 15th February, 1908. Initially Bunter was a minor, background character to the adventures of the clean-limbed, Empire-loving ‘Famous Five’, led by Harry Wharton. Over time, however, Bunter became a major player in the series, and then reduced the Famous Five to his supporting cast by the time that Magnet was cancelled in 1940, with its 1683rd issue.
Bunter, however, rolled on. From the prose-with-illustrations ‘story papers’ that preceded comics in the UK, he transitioned successfully to the comic-strip format, joining Knockout (launched 1939) from 15th June 1940, in two-page comedy tales. He was also the star of a series of books, authored by Hamilton, from 1947 to 1965, a popular TV series starring Gerald Campion from 1952 to 1961, and stage shows running from 1958 till 1963, but it was his comic appearances that had the longest duration; from Knockout in 1940 until 1961, transferring to Valiant from 1962 till 1976, and with a parallel series running in Comet from 1956 to 1958.
Bunter’s success inspired the creation of a sister Bessie – by Hamilton under the nom du plume of Hilda Richards – appearing in the girls’ paper School Friend from 1919, and proving equally popular, being continually published in one form or another (School Friend to June; June to Tammy) until 1981.
Since 1976, Billy Bunter’s comic appearances were sporadic – he continued to appear in Valiant Annuals after the comic itself ceased publication, and a large selection of Billy Bunter comic strips were featured in 1989’s The Big Fat Bunter Book by Mike Higgs. However, the Howard Baker and Greyfriars Book Club series, reprinting the original text stories, kept the character before the public eye.
Just as Bunter’s career appeared to be over – and just in time for his centennial – Alan Moore pilfered Bunter, as he had done numerous other characters from literature – for a supporting role in his controversial League of Extraordinary Gentlemen; The Black Dossier. An elderly Bunter, living in the now-abandoned Greyfriars as its caretaker, is revealed to be the custodian of a training ground for spies, with equally startling disclosures being made about some other members of the ‘Famous Five’.
The ‘League’ incarnation – which you can’t legally obtain in the UK, owing to copyright disputes – is a strange coda to Bunter’s long and multifaceted career, but who knows? Perhaps we haven’t seen the last of the old boy yet!
© Will Morgan 2008