November 19, 2008

Magic Ink: Rupert and the Illustrators

Rupert Bear, Britain's enchanting comic strip character, has appeared every day in the British paper The Daily Express for 88 years.

Rupert Bear first appeared in the Daily Express on November 8, 1920. Mary Tourtel, wife of one of the paper's editors, was asked to create the comic after instructions from the paper's owner. Lord Beaverbrook wanted to launch an appealing comic strip character that would rival the competition. Mary, a trained artist, invented the little bear Rupert and the charming town called Nutwood.

Rupert was introduced in a story called "The Adventures of a Little Lost Bear", with Mary's illustrations and captions provided by her husband. Rupert was an instant success. His daily adventures consisted of two drawings with an accompanying set of rhymes. Bill Badger, Edward Trunk, Algy Pug, Podgy Pig, the Rabbit Twins and the pet monkey Beppo, are some of Mary's Nutwood characters that have survived the decades.

Mary continued to draw Rupert until her sight began to fail. In 1935, The Express asked magazine illustrator Alfred Bestall to take over for six weeks. Alfred Bestall wrote and illustrated his first Rupert story, "Rupert, Algy and the Smugglers" and six weeks extended into thirty years.

Day by day Alfred drew the cartoons. He slightly altered Rupert over the years. The most significant change was the colour of Rupert's sweater, which he changed from Mary Tourtel's blue to the now familiar red.

Alfred was a genius at inventing fascinating stories for children. His editors told him to leave out the fairies and witches that Mary Tourtel relied on to get Rupert out of difficult situations. Children found them just too hard to believe. Alfred kept the enchantment in the stories by introducing magical characters such as The Conjuror.

Alfred wrote and illustrated at least 273 Rupert stories from 28 June 1935 to 22 July 1965. He introduced many of Rupert's best-known friends including Tigerlily, Pong-Ping and the Old Professor.

The first Rupert Annual was published for Christmas 1936 containing a collection of Rupert stories printed throughout the year. Over time, Alfred introduced other features, such as games, colouring pages and origami.

Alfred stopped drawing Rupert in 1965 though he continued illustrating the covers of the annuals until 1973. The current illustrator is John Harrold.

At 90 years of age, Alfred was certified fit by a doctor and promptly drove 800 km to an origami conference. He died in January 1986. Alfred's last drawings, found on the back of an envelope, are of Rupert's head.

After Alfred died, a Rupert society was founded called "The Followers of Rupert". Books were published about Rupert and Alfred Bestall, including an "Index of Rupert", which lists every daily cartoon and every episode of every annual. But it's the Christmas-time annuals that carry on the Rupert tradition. Recently, exact copies of the 1936 Rupert Annual were published and new reproductions are being published every year.

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