Alexander 'Ally' Sloper (general)|
Search for 'Alexander 'Ally' Sloper (general)' on Amazon
While it has been assumed by many American scholars that The Yellow Kid was the first comic superstar, he did not appear until 1894. By that time, Britain's Ally Sloper had not only been around for 20 years, but had been more significant to his popular culture than The Yellow Kid was to his. He would go on for at least another 20 years, in the process picking up more licensing agreements and even stepping into film, something The Yellow Kid never did. By 1896, it was being noted anecdotally in newspapers that Sloper was the subject of over 50% of the country's live entertainments.
Certainly the first example of the multimedia icon in British culture, Ally Sloper, while largely unknown today, was a blockbuster fictional character of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Through a combination of clever advertising and a range of licensed and unlicensed appearances beyond the pages of the comics, he became a "household name" on a rough par with Superman. His success was in no small measure derived from the conjunction of an aggressive marketing campaign, lax copyright laws, and a growing middle class in Britain that had money and time to spare on entertainment. He was, in short, in the right place at the right time.
Like Charlie Chaplin's "Tramp" character, he was a kind of everyman--if with the harder edge of being a drunkard and inveterate schemer. Some have even speculated that he's the basis for W.C. Fields' stage character. His very name suggests he was the kind of guy who would duck out on paying his rent. Having said that, he wasn't really an "underground" or "revolutionary" figure. He was quite obviously pro-British, pro-Royal, pro-Empire, and not particularly sympathetic to the unemployed. To use a more modern metaphor, there's a certain Han Solo quality about him, in that he lives round the margins of a society he's fiercely willing to defend. Given that he was one of the few human comic characters present during several different wars of the late 19th and early-mid 20th centuries, he was one of the few in Britain to be able to be seen against the backdrop of current events. And his political attitudes were pretty well defined. Though he was typically shown in and around the seedier parts of London, he sometimes took trips abroad, which were generally excuses for the character to further British stereotypes of foreigners. Unsurprisingly, his trips to France proved highly popular with readers--and another revenue stream for his publishers. He was prominently licensed to humorously advertise events surrounding the Paris Exhibition of 1878. Soon, his image was seen on glass relish bottles (and not on the label, but actually cast into the glass), cigars, and even medicine. He was, in short, a brand--and one that tended to be associated with "adult" products in a way that perhaps no other comic character (certainly in the English-speaking world) ever has since.
What's interesting about the character is that most of this "branding" was already well in place before the advent of his own comic title, Ally Sloper's Half Holiday. With this title, he became really the first character (at least, again, in the English-speaking world) to have his own self-titled publication.
It's in this book that we see the introduction of another staple of the comics industry: the reader competition. Following an editorial in an 1899 issue which promised prizes to be given away every week, the publisher's flirtation with the idea became a fixture that virtually every British comic of the day would have to match. Interestingly the prizes given away tended to be quite "adult", including money, pipe tobacco, razors, pocket watches--even a diamond ring.
Toward the latter half of ASHH's run, the publishers pulled another "first', introducing the notion of the fan club, inviting readers to send in twelve coupons from issues as both proof of purchase and proof of their loyalty to the character.
Soon, the marketing craze that was Ally Sloper became too much for the publisher to contain legally, perhaps owing to relatively ambiguous copyright law, and (by today's standards) a huge illegal trade in Ally Sloper merchandise sprung up. Everything from tie pin to door stops to walking sticks soon had the likeness of Ally Sloper on them. They were even sold in "reputable" stores, but a lot of it wasn't licensed.
Fortunately, the publishers were able to license the character to the fledgling movie industry. Though none have survived, at least four movie shorts were made for release in so-called "music halls"--two in 1898 and two in 1900. These movies were not one-off flukes, either, but the culmination of a "live-action" entertainment phenomenon that had been ongoing for years. Sloper had, at the point of the release of the movies, long been appearing in a variety of licensed and unlicensed stage, street and puppet theatres.
With these movies, though, the Sloper character became the first in the English speaking world to complete the "multimedia marketing arc" we see so commonly today. What's really different about him, though, is that he was explicitly aimed at adults.
The Sloper phenomenon died a sputtering death in the 1910s after the fairly severe blow of dwindling comic sales and eventual cancellation. Having essentially spawned the comics explosion of the 1890s, he eventually succumbed to the rivals he'd created--most directly those from rival publisher Alfred Harmsworth. His Amalgamated Press used a simple formula of selling his comics for half the price of ASHH while delivering more innovative art.
First Appearance: None listed.
View a chronological listing of this character's appearances
Famous Quotes: - Add a Famous Quote