The Encyclopedia of Fantastic Victoriana
by Jess Nevins
The Ally Sloper Stories (1867-1916)
copyright © Jess Nevins 2022
Ally Sloper was created by Charles H. Ross and first appeared in the comic strip “Some of the Mysteries of the ‘Loan and Discount’” (Judy; or the London Serio-Comic Journal, August 14, 1867). Ross (c. 1834-1897) was a prolific author of penny dreadfuls and plays who is best-known for Ally Sloper. Sloper became a regular in the British comics for almost fifty years, written and drawn by a variety of different writers and artists after Ross left the strip in 1880. He additionally appeared in summer and winter annuals and nearly a dozen books reprinting the comic strips.
In Victorian slang an “‘alley sloper” was someone who avoided paying the rent by “sloping” down the alley when the landlord came to collect the rent. Ross’ Ally Sloper became the quintessential Victorian heroic scoundrel, someone who represented the triumph of the average man over wealthy, dim hypocrites. Sloper is jolly, lazy, clever, and dissolute, a gambler, a cheat, and a swindler. He is lecherous, he puts far more energy into crooked schemes than into finding honest work, and he ignores his family. His best friend and partner in crime is “Ikey Mo,” a.k.a. Isaac Moses, one of the first Jewish stereotypes in British comics. After the mid-1880s Ally became cleaner and slightly more respectable, with the humor of the comic strip deriving from the incongruity of Ally Sloper in middle-class surroundings rather than from Sloper’s newest scheme. This change coincided with an increase in the comic strip’s popularity. During the first two decades of the strip Sloper was a failure as a crook, but after W. Fletcher Thomas began writing and drawing him in 1888 Sloper became more cunning and more successful. He would sell rotten oysters on Brighton Beach. He would outwit the police through the use of obscure laws. He would argue with the French politician Georges Boulanger (1837-1891). He is successful far more often than he is a failure, and he became more lovable. His popularity soared, as did the number and sales of the merchandise associated with him. He also became less dangerous. Although he remained emphatically working class, he became a voice for patriotism and Empire during the Boer War, and his energies as a trickster and swindler were focused more on foreigners, who appeared as stereotypes, and less on the English upper class. By 1896 Sloper was arguably the most famous fictional character in Great Britain and was the protagonist of an enormous number of pantomimes. His popularity did not dwindle until World War One.
Ally Sloper is of interest on a number of levels. He is a likely influence on Reg Smythe’s comic strip character Andy Capp (1957-present). The Ally Sloper comics were a probable influence on stage and screen actor W.C. Fields (1880-1946):
W.C. Fields is speculated to have taken his act more directly from Sloper: Fields fancied himself as a cartoonist in the early 1900s, and travelled widely in Europe at that time. Although evidence is sketchy, Fields' stage routine from 1915 onwards featured the similarly big-nosed comedian in a top hat, and cut-away coat and collar, and carrying a cane. In the movies, Fields was an automatic choice for the role of Mr. Micawber, who, as we have seen, may have been an inspiration for Sloper.1
Most importantly, Ally Sloper represents the first major recurring character in comics, and its first superstar. Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday (1884-1923) is “widely acknowledged as the publication that established the [comics] form,”2 and Sloper himself, as Roger Sabin notes, is the form’s first star, comics’ first character to become a major merchandizing figure. Credit for this is usually given to Richard F. Outcault’s Yellow Kid, but “the Yellow Kid did not appear until 1894. By that time Ally Sloper had been a superstar for over 20 years.”3 Sloper’s influence on American comics was not nearly as heavy as his influence on British comics, and American comics can trace their origin to the Yellow Kid rather than to Ally Sloper, though of course there had been comics before Outcault’s Yellow Kid cartoons. But the comic medium as a whole, rather than just the American version of it, can point to Ally Sloper’s debut in 1867 as the moment when comics began the transition from an isolated form to a merchandizing juggernaut—a transition that was complete by 1878, when Sloper’s image was used to sell various products.4
Most of the Ally Sloper comics are of their time, but some few deliver gags that do not depend on being a Victorian or Edwardian to be amused.
For Further Research
Roger Sabin, “Ally Sloper: The First Comics Superstar?” Image & Narrative 4.1 (Oct. 2003), accessed Jan. 11, 2019, http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/graphicnovel/rogersabin.htm
1 Roger Sabin, “Ally Sloper: The First Comics Superstar?” Image & Narrative 4.1 (Oct. 2003), accessed Jan. 22, 2019, http://www.imageandnarrative.be/inarchive/graphicnovel/rogersabin.htm.
2 Michael Rosen, “Comics, Comic Strips,” in Dinah Birch, ed., The Oxford Companion to English Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009), 240.
3 Sabin, “Ally Sloper.”
4 Sabin, “Ally Sloper.”