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Little Orphan Annie

As we saw in our last post, the pathway to the character of Little Orphan Annie was longer and more interesting than one might think. Heck, we did an entire post and didn’t even get to the actual red haired Little Orphan Annie character we all know and every little girl loves.

Well, in August 1924 cartoonist Harold Gray, who had been trying unsuccessfully to get The Chicago Tribune to pick up one of his strips finally succeeded. Owner Joseph Patterson agreed to try out this Little Orphan Annie character in the New York Daily News to a test audience. The response was positive so the Chicago Tribune picked it up and soon the strip was running all over the country.

Gray had decided on the character based on a meeting with a little “ragamuffin” while wandering about Chicago. Her common sense and spunk (note, spunk in the american sense NOT the english) made an impression on him. He wanted to write and draw a successful comic strip and kids were popular stars to have in them.

Most comic strip featured boys as main character so a girl stood out. Furthermore, by making her an orphan he had the excuse to put her in whatever various adventures and places he wanted. He took the name directly from the Riley poem Little Orphant Annie which we covered last time.

Annie was popular enough but when the depression hit she became wildly successful, one of the most popular strips in the country during the 30s and according to Fortune magazine in 1937 THE most popular comic strip, beating out Popeye, Dick Tracy and Lil Abner.

Gray’s philosophy was more about conservative values then “the sun’ll come out tomorrow”. Annie outspokenly advocated hard work, respect for elders, and yes, keeping your chin up regardless of the circumstances. It also heartily criticized FDR’s New Deal and 1930s labor unionism.

Gray was occasionally criticized for the fact that because of the enormous success of the strip he rode out the depression well cared for while all the while preaching to the huddle masses.

In 1930 the Little Orphan Annie radio show began, which was also a runaway hit. It aired for 12 years until 1942.

The show’s sponsors were indeed Ovaltine and they made a killing out of cultivating the show’s fan base by offering special premiums, including secret decoders, shake-up mugs for drinking Ovaltine and rings for members of the Little Orphan Annie secret society. Announcer Pierre Andre’s exuberant pitches for Ovaltine and the many premiums were an integral part of the show. This has of course been immortalized in one of the greatest Xmas movies ever made, A Christmas story.

There was a (very bad) cartoon and two pretty bad Annie movies in the 30s. IN 1962 there was a pretty popular Annie spoof in the then wildly popular Playboy magazine. Written and drawn by Harvy Kurtzman, the guy behind Mad Magazine and Will Elder, it featured “Annie Fanny, a tall, blonde, amply breasted, round buttocked, curly-haired young female who seems to find herself in trouble and naked in each episode.” The Mad Men guys went crazy over it.

Well now, isn’t that interesting? Ask anyone around in the Mad Men era, they know about Little Annie Fanny.

Which FINALLY, after ALL THIS, brings us to the version of Little Orphan Annie everyone actually knows, the 1977 Broadway musical and that stupid damn song “Tomorrow”. Which i’m not gonna play here, although don’t get me wrong, i find the music from the show in general to be immensely hummable and catchy.

It led to the 1982 film and actually another in 1999 which i never heard of.

So there ya go. Little Orphan Annie, a character you probably dismissed as utterly uninteresting actually has one of the most interesting histories of any long running character still around.

I leave you with a medley from the musical. Personally i’d rather beat my own genitals with a hammer rather than have to sit through an entire performance of the show, but hey, that’s me. If i was an 8 year girl i would feel very, very differently and indeed know many who did.

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Posted by on June 11, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Little Orphant Annie

I have an endless fascination with fictional characters who experience long lives and evolutions through by being expounded upon by different artists who keep the character alive and transforming through generations. As surprising as it may seem, few characters really emulate as thoroughly as Little Orphan Annie, whose history is surprisingly longer and more interesting than you might have thought.

Little Orphan Annie

When folks think of the famous Little Orphan Annie they almost always hum ‘Tomorrow’ and other songs from the famous 1977musical. A few will point out that the musical is based off the long running and at one time enormously popular daily comic strip. However, Little Orphan Annie is actually a product of the Victorian era, although she was born in the states, in Indiana.

The original incarnation of Annie was as an 1885 poem by James Whitcomb Riley entitled The Elf Child.

James Whitcomb Riley

He based the poem on a 12 year old orphan girl who lived with him and his family while he was growing up. The girl, Mary Alice Smith, known as Allie to everyone was orphaned when her father died as a soldier in the American Civil War. Riley’s father was also a soldier in the war and when his mother discovered the poor girl’s plight she insisted the girl be brought in to live with the Rileys.

Mary Alice “Allie” Smith

Allie worked alongside the family to earn her keep and in the evenings told the other children stories. It is this image the poem centers on.

The poem gained some popularity and in 1897 for its third printing Riley decided to change the title from The Elf Child to Little Orphant Allie. However the printing house miscast the type and instead of using Allie’s name cast it as Little Orphant Annie. Riley tried to get them to change it, but the poem’s popularity was taking off and the Annie name was becoming widely known, so he let it go.


Little Orphant Annie

The poem uses a midwestern accent, one used by residents of Indiana, and indeed James Whitcomb Riley was known as the Hoosier poet for his prevelant use of this accent in his poetry.

The poem begins by introducing Allie, well, Annie now, and in the following verses she tells the children various morality tales about bad children who meet their fearsome fate.

Little Orphant Annie
Little Orphant Annie’s come to our house to stay,
An’ wash the cups an’ saucers up, an’ brush the crumbs away,
An’ shoo the chickens off the porch, an’ dust the hearth, an’ sweep,
An’ make the fire, an’ bake the bread, an’ earn her board-an’-keep;
An’ all us other children, when the supper-things is done,
We set around the kitchen fire an’ has the mostest fun
A-list’nin’ to the witch-tales ‘at Annie tells about,
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘at gits you
Ef you
Wunst they wuz a little boy wouldn’t say his prayers,–
An’ when he went to bed at night, away up-stairs,
His Mammy heerd him holler, an’ his Daddy heerd him bawl,
An’ when they turn’t the kivvers down, he wuzn’t there at all!
An’ they seeked him in the rafter-room, an’ cubby-hole, an’ press,
An’ seeked him up the chimbly-flue, an’ ever’-wheres, I guess;
But all they ever found wuz thist his pants an’ roundabout:–
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you
An’ one time a little girl ‘ud allus laugh an’ grin,
An’ make fun of ever’ one, an’ all her blood-an’-kin;
An’ wunst, when they was “company,” an’ ole folks wuz there,
She mocked ’em an’ shocked ’em, an’ said she didn’t care!
An’ thist as she kicked her heels, an’ turn’t to run an’ hide,
They wuz two great big Black Things a-standin’ by her side,
An’ they snatched her through the ceilin’ ‘fore she knowed what she’s about!
An’ the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you
An’ little Orphant Annie says, when the blaze is blue,
An’ the lamp-wick sputters, an’ the wind goes woo-oo!
An’ you hear the crickets quit, an’ the moon is gray,
An’ the lightnin’-bugs in dew is all squenched away,-You better mind yer parunts, an’ yer teachurs fond an’ dear,
An’ churish them ‘at loves you, an’ dry the orphant’s tear,
An’ he’p the pore an’ needy ones ‘at clusters all about,Er the Gobble-uns ‘ll git you
Ef you
After the renaming of the poem to Little Orphant Annie the poem became nationally famous. It even became a silent film in 1918. i would LOVE to post some footage of it here, but i cannot find any actual footage online.
The next true evolution of Annie occurred in 1915 however, when writer Johnny Gruelle was presented an old rag doll by his young daughter Marcella. He drew a face on it and when she asked for a name, pulled out a book of poems by Riley and saw the poem Little Orphant Annie. He thus named the doll Raggedy Ann.

Raggedy Ann

Raggedy Ann became a sensation. First the doll was produced and then in 1918 Gruelle began writing books about the doll’s adventures. In 1920 he introduced a companion doll and book of stories to go along with him, Raggedy Andy. He went on to write over 35 books about the pair, although the exact number is contested as beginning in the 1940s it is accepted that as grulle began writing less and less Raggedy Ann and Andy books, the publishing house Saalfield would ghost write books and throw Gruelle’s name on it for authenticity.
The dolls are STILL being produced today. My sister had a Raggedy Ann and Andy doll when she was a girl and in 2012 toy giant Hasbro has signed for a new line of plush Raggedy Ann and Andy dolls.
However, a very interesting note on this, Gruelle’s daughter Marcella died at age 13 after receiving a smallpox vaccine at school without her parent’s permission.  There has been speculation that the vaccine was infected although other doctors blamed a heart defect.Gruelle and his wife blamed the vaccine. Gruelle became an outspoken proponent of the anti-vaccination movement and Raggedy Ann for years was used as an anti vaccine symbol.
We will end here for today. Thanks for stopping by, little urchins!

Posted by on June 9, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Philip K Dick: The Penultimate Truth

YEARS ago i went through a big Philip K Dick phase. I read all of his books in about a 1 year period. There was a great little sci-fi bookstore near me and several times a week i would buy one of his novels and a couple Sam Adams then sit in the evening and read the entire book in a single sitting. Which actually worked because for awhile he himself would write the books in a single, very long, amphetamine induced sitting.

He does has issues as a writer which can get rather annoying or which you must simply roll with and chalk up to his idiosyncricies. However his imagination is stunning and the ideas he throws out and toys with are the reason he enjoys such a large, rabid cult following and why he is endlessly plundered for movie premises.

Years after my phase with Philip K Dick ended i picked up and read a biography on him and the biography was absolutely fascinating. I had already known a bit about the “event” which seriously messed with his headspace, and which every book from Valis onward was based on. This “event” shook Philip K Dick’s already neurotic take on reality and thrust him into living out one of his own novels for the rest of his life.

What i didn’t know was how many details from his books were actually based on details from his life and what a very strange person he really was. Now a documentary about him made in 2008 is online and i present it to you here today. It’s got some really stupid “framing device” involving special agents because… i don’t know you just can’t get right to the point? But ignore that and this is a very good documentary about an iconic author who eventually… went crazy? Had a genuine religious experience? Had SOME experience which he couldn’t explain but which lead to him basically being one of his own characters in his own real life, exploring his favorite theme of reality itself being absolutely uncertain?

(note, the “band” i’m in, that is Ah Pook The Destroyer which is actually just musician/composer Matthew Broyles and myself are trying to see if we can get permission to use Valis as our next literature inspired album. I would LOVE for us to tackle Valis as an album. Our last one was Lovecraft’s The Silver Key.)

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Posted by on June 3, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Mouse Koan

I like poetry.

I prefer poetry that rhymes. I’m old fashioned like that, but i’m prepared to bed some kinky, funky non rhyming poetry too, cause while i’m a slut with preferences, i’m still a slut.

So as i prepare to leave late tonight by airplane for London, i thought i’d share this wonderful piece by Catherine M. Valente, Mouse Koan. It doesn’t rhyme or anything, but kinky funky poetry has some tricks that can rockle your cockles too. (thanks

Mouse Koan


In the beginning of everything
I mean the real beginning
the only show in town
was a super-condensed blue-luminous ball
of everything
that would ever be
including your mother
and the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles
and the heat-death of prime time television
a pink-white spangle-froth
of deconstructed stars
into the eight million gods of this world.

Some of them were social creatures
some misanthropes, hiding out in the asteroid belt
turning up their ion-trails at those sell-outs trying to teach
the dinosaurs about ritual practice
and the importance of regular hecatombs. It was

a lot like high school. The popular kids figured out the game
right away. Sun gods like football players firing glory-cannons
bookish virgin moon-nerds
angry punkbrat storm gods shoving sacrificial
gentle bodied compassion-niks
into folkloric lockers. But one

a late bloomer, draft dodger
in Ragnarok, that mess with the Titans,
both Armageddons,
started showing up around 1928. Your basic
trickster template
primary colors
making music out of goat bellies
cow udders
ram horns
squeezing cock ribs like bellows.
It drew over its face
the caul of a vermin animal,
all black circles and disruption. Flickering
silver and dark
it did not yet talk
it did not yet know its nature.

have problems with identity, too. No better
than us
they have midlife crises
run out
drive a brand new hot red myth cycle
get a few mortals pregnant with
half-human monster-devas who
grow up to be game show hosts
ask themselves in the long terrible confusion
of their personal centuries
who am I, really?
what does any of it mean?
I’m so afraid
someday everyone will see
that I’m just an imposter
a fake among all the real
and gorgeous godheads.

The trickster god of silent films
knew of itself only:
I am a mouse.
I love nothing.
I wish to break

It did not even know
what it was god of
what piece of that endlessly exploding
heating and cooling and shuddering and scattering cosmos
it could move.
But that is no obstacle
to hagiography.
Always in motion
plane/steamboat/galloping horse
even magic cannot stop its need
to stomp and snap
to unzip order:
if you work a dayjob
boat captain
orchestra man

A priesthood called it down
like a moon
men with beards
men with money.
It wanted not love
nor the dreamsizzle of their ambition
but to know itself.
 Tell me who I am, it said.
And they made icons of it in black and white
then oxblood and mustard and gloves
like the paws of some bigger beast.
They gave it a voice
falsetto and terrible
though the old school gods know the value
of silence.
They gave it a consort
like it but not
A mirror-creature in a red dress forever
out of reach
as impenetrable and unpenetrating
as itself.
And for awhile
the mouse-god ran loose
box office
copyright law
human hearts
and called it good.


If you play Fantasia backwards
you can hear the mantra of the mouse-god sounding.

   Hiya, kids!
Let me tell you something true:
the future
is plastics
the future
is me.
I am the all-dancing thousand-eared unembodied god of Tomorrowland.
And only in that distant
Space Mountain Age of glittering electro-synthetic perfection
will I become fully myself, fully
apotheosed, for only then
will you be so tired of my laughing iconographic infinitely fertile and reproducing
perpetual smile-rictus
my red trousers that battle Communism
my PG-rated hidden and therefore monstrous genitalia
my bawdy lucre-yellow shoes
so deaf to my jokes
your souls hardened like arteries
that I can rest.
Contrary to what you may have heard
it is possible
to sate a trickster.
It only takes the whole world.

                  But look,
don’t worry about it. That’s not what I’m about
anymore. Everybody
grows up.
grows clarity,
which is another name
for the tumor that kills you.
I finally
figured it out.

You don’t know what it’s like
to be a god without a name tag.
nothing. What? God of corporate ninja daemonic fuckery?
That’s not me. That’s not
the theme song
I came out of the void beyond Jupiter
to dance to.
The truth is
I’m here to rescue you.

The present and the future are a dog
racing a duck. Right now
you think happiness
is an industrial revolution that lasts forever.
Brings to its own altar
the Chicken of Tomorrow
breasts heavy with saline
dehydrated ice cream
freeze-dried coffee crystals
Right now, monoculture
feels soft and good and right
as Minnie in the dark.
It’s 1940.
You’re not ready yet.
You can’t know.
everything runs down.
entropy unravels the very best of us.
all copyright runs out.

                              In that impossible futurological post-trickster space
I will survive
I will become my utter self
and this is it:
I am the god
of the secret world-on-fire
that the corporate all-seeing eye
cannot see.
I am the song of perfect kitsch
endless human mousefire
burning toward mystery
I am ridiculous
and unlovely
I am plastic
and mass-produced

I am the tiny threaded needle
of unaltered primordial unlawful beauty-after-horror
of everything that is left of you
glittering glorified
when the Company Man
has used you up
to build the Company Town.
they used me, too.

I thought we were just having fun. Put me in the movies, mistah!
The flickies! The CINEMA.
The 20s were one long champagne binge.

I used to be
a goggling plague mouse shrieking deadstar spaceheart
now I’m a shitty
fire retardant polyurethane

Hey there. Hi there. Ho there.

What I am the god of
is the fleck of infinite timeless
nuclear inferno soul
that can’t be trademarked
patented bound up in international courts
the untraded future.
That’s why
my priests
can never let me go
screaming black-eared chaotic red-assed jetmouse
into the collective unconscious Jungian unlost Eden
called by the mystic name of public domain
The shit I would kick up there
if I were free!

I tricked them good. I made them
put my face on the moon.
I made them take me everywhere
their mouse on the inside
I made them so fertile
they gave birth to a billion of me.
Anything that common
will become invisible.
And in that great plasticene Epcotfutureworld
you will have no trouble finding me.

You’re gonna get hurt. Nothing
I can do.
Lead paint grey flannel suits toxic runoff
monoculture like a millstone
fairy tales turned into calorie-free candy
you don’t even know
what corporate downsizing is yet.
And what I got
isn’t really much
What I got
is a keychain
What I got
is the pure lotuslove
of seeing the first lightspray of detonated creation
even in the busted-up world they sell you.
Seeing in me
as tired and overworked
as old gum
the unbearable passionmouse of infinite stupid trashcamp joy
and hewing to that.
It’s the riddle of me, baby. I am
everywhere            exploited          exhibited          exhausted
and I am still holy.

It doesn’t matter
what they do to you.
Make you a permanent joke
sell your heart off piece by piece
robber princes
ruin everything
it’s what they do
like a baby cries.

                                                                  Look at my opposite number.
It was never coyote versus roadrunner.
It was both
against Acme
mail order daemon of death.
Stick with me. Someday
we’ll bundle it all up again
the big blue-luminous ball of everything
your father
the Tunguska event
the ultimate star-spangled obliteration of all empires.
I will hold everything tawdry
in my gloved four fingered hand
and hold it high

It’s 1940. What you don’t know
is going to break you.       Listen to the Greek chorus
of my Kids
lining up toward the long downward slide of the century
like sacrifices.
Their song comes backward and upside down
from the unguessable extropy
of that strangesad orgiastic corporate electrical parade
of a future

                                          Listen to it.
The sound of my name
the letters forty feet high.
See ya
see ya
see ya real soon.

-Catherine M Valente

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Posted by on April 3, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Spring Heeled Jack: The 1st Super Villain?

One character who was an early fixture of penny dreadfuls was Spring Heeled Jack. He would leap in out of nowhere, slap you, cop a feel, or rip your dress and then leap away. He could leap over tall shrubbery, spit blue fire, and was impervious to bullets.

If this sounds anywhere between interesting and mildly ridiculous, the character was in fact a real life legend. There was indeed a Spring Heeled Jack who leapt around London,  assaulting women, slapping men, breathing blue fire and dodging bullets. This is his story.

In 1808 a letter to the Sheffield Times recounted how in their neighborhood existed a legend about a ghostly figure referred to as The Park Ghost or Spring Heeled Jack who could make enormous leaps and enjoyed frightening passers by.

All well and fine. Fast forward to September, 1837. A man reports he was walking outside a cemetery when a muscular male with devilishly pointed ears and glowing red eyes leapt over the cemetery fence, landed in front of him, then leapt away.

Shortly thereafter a barmaid named Polly Adams and two other women were walking outside Blackheath Fair when a man with the same description leapt in out of nowhere, tore Ms. Adam’s dress, felt up her boob and then scratched her stomach before bounding off again.

One month later, in October, a young servant girl named Mary Stevens was walking to work when the same character leapt in, grabbed her, and began kissing her face while ripping her clothes. She screamed and off he went.

The next day the same guy leapt into the middle of the street causing a carriage to swerve and tip over. Witnesses claim the perpetrator then jumped over a 9 foot wall laughing maniacally. A few days later, same dude appeared again, but this time left deep tracks in the mud from which the police concluded he had leapt from a substantial height. One investigator noted the tracks hinted to some gadgetry being used in his shoes, such as a compressed spring.

In 1838, the Lord Mayor, Sir John Cowan publicized these events and was soon flooded with a barrage of letters all describing similar shenanigans. The mysterious figure was officially dubbed Spring Heeled Jack.

He had two more publicized appearances in 1838, one where Jane Alsop received a knock at her front door from a man claiming to be a police officer, needing a light for “we have caught Spring-heeled Jack here in the lane”. She brought him a candle at which point he threw off his cloak and vomited blue flame at her face, His eyes, as usual were glowing red and he wore a big helmet. He grabbed her and tore at her clothes with his claws. She screamed and tried to get away. He proceeded to tear at her neck and arms but her sister appeared and away he leapt.

Also in Feb 1838, 18 year old Lucy Sales and her sister were passing along Green Dragon Alley when a figure suddenly spat blue flames her. She was blinded and suddenly dropped to ground having a violent fit that ended up lasting for hours (seizure?). When this happened, the figure turned and quickly walked away.

Spring Heeled Jack became a darling of the penny dreadfuls. Tales of his evil exploits abounded for years and his face gradually acquired a devil-mask that had never existed in the reports prior. After many, many years, as the dreadfuls were cleaning up a bit and catering to a youthful audience, Jack became a good guy, leaping in to save damsels in distress.

As to who he was, Polly Adams claimed among other things that he looked a great deal like the Marquis of Waterford, which was notable since rumors were consecutively flying that the Marquis had agreed to a bet put forth by several friends one night while they were drinking. The Marquis, a known dickhead with a terrible reputation regarding women had bragged he could create a notorious character as a way of “getting even” with police and women in general.

The Marquis of Waterford was in fact frequently in the news in the late 1830s for drunken brawling, brutal jokes and vandalism, and was said to do anything for a bet. His shenanigans and his contempt for women earned him the moniker the Mad Marquis, and it was indeed established that he was present in the London area when the first Spring Heeled Jack incidents took place.

He was a major suspect. However, after 1838, confirmed Spring Heeled Jack sightings dried up until 1843 when a new wave suddenly appeared. However, by this time, the Marquis was married and living in Ireland.

Spring Heeled Jack had some appearances in 1843, in the 1850s and the last confirmed incidents throughout the 1870s. The very last confimred sighting in 1877 is interesting. Spring Heeled Jack leapt into the midst of a squad of soldiers and “slapped one soundly”. One of the soldiers claimed to have shot Spring Heeled Jack and heard a hollow, metallic sound, at which point Jack belched blue flame at him and leapt away perfectly unharmed.  A few days later a mob caught sight of Jack, and laid chase. Though they too claim to have shot him, he never slowed, and jumped right out of the area.

Unconfirmed sightings of jack have continued into the 20th century. There was spree in the 1970s and a sighting in 1986. By the late 20th century demonic ghosts were no longer in fashion and so of course out comes the UFO speculations, claiming that he was/is an extraterrestrial.

If you ask me, most likely he began as the Marquis, but subsequent persons have picked up the prank. Certainly some sightings are probably imagination and embellishment. My bet is every so often some strange lad decides to take his turn as Spring Heeled Jack and delights in a notorious small spree .

Or it’s a demonic alien ghost. Hell, i don’t know. But there you have it, the Legend Of Spring Heeled Jack.


Posted by on February 18, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Penny Gaffs

From 1830 to 1870, the exact time the macabre and violent incarnations of the penny dreadful were being published, otherwise known as penny bloods, a complementary form of theater was also taking place, Penny Gaffs.

The penny gaff alludes to attending a cock fight for a penny, but the actual penny gaff had lost the chickens and put bawdy performances in their place. The penny dreadful and the penny gaff entwine in many ways, beginning with the obvious; both cost a penny.

As such they were clearly for the lower, barely or non educated classes. Penny gaffs even more so, because you at least needed to be literate to read a penny dreadful. The gaffs being a live event didn’t even require that. It was especially  popular amongst a younger crowd; 20 somethings, teenagers, even many poor children would attend. Because of the high number of underage attendees, there was no price reduction for age otherwise it would cut drastically into the profit margin. Large or small you paid your penny and went in.

You might go into a shop which doubled as a temporary theater at night, or the backroom of a pub, where some makeshift stage had been assembled. The idea was to emulate the popular music hall that the middle classes were enjoying. In the poor areas of London there might be 20 penny gaffs going on in a 5 mile radius.

Each performance would last and hour and a half to 2 hours, then everybody OUT and the next round in and the next show is on. You would pay your penny, go to a room to wait for the performance area to clear, then be herded in.

A Master of Ceremonies of sorts would appear to warm up the audience and introduce the acts. The humor was overwhelming raunchy and low brow. Some singers would sing, often bawdy or patriotic, jingoistic song, some clowing would ensue and short plays and vignettes would be performed.

The short plays are where we find another connection with the penny dreadfuls. They were most often about the same highwaymen, robbers and criminals which appeared the dreadfuls. In fact both the dreadful and the gaff took their criminal protagonists from the same source.

The Newgate Calender was one of the most popular periodicals of the 18th and 19th centuries. It was originally a monthly bulletin of executions. Biographies of some of the executed criminals would appear and by the mid 19th century it was fully of immensely embellished anecdotes about criminals who became infamous and the stars of the penny gaffs and penny dreadfuls.

The Newgate Calender contained heavy handed lessons about the horrors of Catholicism, foreigners,  and every manner of vice while practically bursting into loving tears over the subjects of Protestantism, patriotism, capital, punishment and royalty. Just in case you think things are any different today than they’ve ever been.

The plays and vignettes would feature the exploits of some famous criminal like Dick Turpin or Jack Sheppard. Some would retell and dramatize the incidents of a famous bloody crime, the more Manson-like the better.

The crowd would eat it up. Between the raunchy sex and the violence it was enormously popular amongst both young men and women of the lower classes. The shows were roudy affairs, although with a large degree of patriotism thrown in whenever possible.

Naturally the more puritan aspects of British society considered the penny gaffs to be a hotbed of vice and criminals and labored for years to have them banned.

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Posted by on February 15, 2012 in Uncategorized


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Penny Dreadfuls II: From Blood To Boys

For decades, since their conception in 1832, Penny Dreadfuls, 8 pages of lurid tales printed on cheap paper and sold for a penny, specialized in highly gruesome material.

For the first 10 years or so there was a fair amount of romance mixed in as they initially attempted to rip off gothic novels, but the fact is, the horror and crime titles are what sold and they eventually dominated the penny dreadful landscape. In fact, another name for Penny Dreadfuls were Penny Bloods.

The typical reader of the dreadful was barely literate. The 8 pages were not dedicated to character development and layered themes. The point was to get to the action. Often a literate working class man at the pub would read the latest installment of Sweeney Todd and his murderous shenanigans to a table of his illiterate mates.

However more and more children were becoming literate too. In 1866 Edwin J Brent began publishing The Boys Of England, which featured tales of adventure with schoolboys as the heroes. It introduced the character of Jack Harkaway, who became beloved by an entire generation of british boys, and Boys Of England soared to record sales.

Thus penny dreadfuls began the shift to the youth market. Sweeny Todd and Varney the Vampire continued to sell well and heaven knows, boys ate their adventures up with great relish also, but despite everyone’s assumption that the working class youth was out of their minds with lust for the high gore content of the penny bloods, the truth was that they perferred high adventure and heroism with protagonists they could identify with over the murderous content that had thrilled their fathers.

As far as their fathers went, as the 1800s rolled on more and more periodicals began to be printed cheaply for a working class audience. Newspapers were a little expensive and difficult to read, but sure enough, tabloid press started to appear, culminating in the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail, the father of tabloid rags, still around today.

Thus the adult audience drifted away and the youth audience drifted in. From the 1870s to 1900 penny dreadfuls became cheap adventure serials for boys. (We’ll touch on what on earth girls had to bloody well amuse themselves with, although Victorian society being victorian society the content is not nearly as interesting and indeed was mostly morality and virtue lessons.) Dreadful after dreadful started throwing the word ‘Boy’ into every title.

Boys could not often afford the penny to buy their favorite dreadfuls, especially if they wanted to follow more than one. And thus the great tradition of the Boys’ Club came to the rescue.

Men form clubs. Boys form clubs. Groups of boys would pool their money together to buy their favorite dreadful(s) and pass them around.

New stars emerged.  Tom Wildrake, Jack Harkaway, Tom Merry, Billy Bunter… Tom Wildrake, introduced in 1870 was particularly influential on the genre as it established certain tropes most later heroes followed. The story goes through the hero’s school days after which he gets on a boat and sets sail for some exotic location, like the Wild West or the Orient and of course high adventure ensues.

By the 1880s the transition was complete. Penny dreadful were entirely youth based and many groups concerned with the corrupting infulence of the penny dreadfuls on their children were publishing their own versions, with careful morality tales always built in.

Dime novels were big in the states. They were the cheap mass market paperbacks on the 1800s and they would be imported to England and serialized in the dreadfuls.  The American West was in fact a source of never ending fascination and gave rise to characters such as Deadwood Dick, an immensely popular wild west outlaw who, along with Sexton Blake, lived long past the end of the dreadfuls. Deadwood Dick not only found himself the subject of many pulp adventures but starred in movie serials in the 1930s. He was so well known, that a number of actual American men living in infamous Deadwood, South Dakota adopted the name to increase their notoriety.

As the 20th century hit, perdiocals featuring adventure tales were being put out which were longer, featured more stories, and cost a bit more. Thus the transition to pulp books began.

The moral watchdogs of Victorian society had been decrying the dreadfuls for decades. Interestingly, the transformation of the penny dreadful from lurid to youth entertainment had done nothing to silence the critics. Indeed, the most vocal elements against them were opposed to escapist fiction of any type, especially for the the young. They blamed escapist fiction for juvenile crime utterly ignoring such petty reasons as poverty and prostitution. Actually, at the height of the storypaper boom juvenile crime went down.

In 1893 published Alfred Harmsworth took it upon himself to end the penny dreadful market and its corrupting influence upon the young by publishing story rags at a HALF penny, but with well written, highly moral tales. He began The Union Jack. The Union Jack story is quite famous as within a few years the Hamrsworth publication had resorted to the exact same level as the penny dreadfuls he was trying to run out. The creator of Winnie The Pooh, A.A. Milne was quoted as saying “Harmsworth killed the penny dreadful by the simple process of producing the ha’penny dreadfuller.”

Leading up the WWI another change that signaled the end of the penny dreadful was the invention of the comic. Basically, the cheap rags that were the penny dreadful started becoming devoted to reprinting comic strips and eventually serialized comics, which attracted the young and the barely literate formally wooed by the dreadful. Adventure tales moved to pulp magazines and with the paper drives of WWI the era penny dreadful was well and truly finished. Afterwards it was comics and pulps.

By the late 20th century of course the comic book had become dominant and people such as myself grew up reading the fantastic, serialized adventures of mighty heroes battling nefarious villains in fantastic and often cosmic settings. Comic books combined what had been the comic and the pulp.

As for the literate once catered to by the pulp, in recent years there has been a sudden explosion in the market for childrens and young adult books. Spurred on by Harry Potter the young adult book market occupies a place the penny dreadful and the pulp novel once did. Supernatural elements, gothic romances, adventure stories, fantastical heroes, it’s all there. Hell, VAMPIRES! Remember the runaway success of the Varney the Vampire penny dreadful? Well….vampires, still around. Still selling. Still dominating the same market.  And even better, the writing of young adult fiction, while not always pulitzer prize winning, is consistently better then many of the predecessors AND is quite friendly to the female market, offering girls also fantastic and imaginative adventures.


Posted by on February 13, 2012 in Uncategorized


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