Art: Yow! It's Bunny Cuddles, scarfing down the jam!
At precisely 2:22 AM this morning, I finished the transcription of the interview tapes from Hank Wagner and my trip out to Neil's house back in November. It's turned out quite nicely, if I may say so myself -- not least thanks to Neil's willingness to answer my many follow-up queries and fact-and-spell-checking questions via email since December.
There's not much I can share with you here, as we're saving it all for the book, Prince of Stories: The Many Worlds of Neil Gaiman, which will be coming from St. Martin's Press later this year. I can tell you the interview clocks in at well over 27,000 words and covers a lot of ground, both archival and fresh; it contains a lot of fresh revelations and insights, and it will be current.
One thing I can share with you today, though, is what turned up as Neil tried to find some online info and art on the British weeklies he grew up with -- particularly the children's comics he cut his eyeteeth on (literally). These were the comics wee li'l Neil loved and loved, as much as l'il Mikey Dobbs loved mayonnaise and l'il Stevie B loved dinosaurs. Mind you, Neil was also into Gilbert & Sullivan at the same tender age, so don't dis the man.
Warning: If you have diabetes, or suffer from cuteophobic tendencies, you might not want to click the following links!
While Neil recalled Sooty off the top of his head during our November conversations, the other woodland animal children's comics he harbored fond fetal memories of didn't come to mind so easily. As of late last night, we were still volleying emails across the Continental US to one another, from one wintry wonderland to another. The turning point came when Neil wrote, "I just spent some time establishing that the comic was Playhour and it was (I think) "the wonderful tales of willow wood". In my memory it looks like Ron Embleton art, and terrifyingly, according to Wikipedia, it might have been..."
While Neil sought online info, I scoured my hardcover histories of British comics for information. According to Denis Gifford's venerable The British Comic Catalogue, the weekly comic Playhour was launched in May of 1955 by Amalgamated Press/Fleetway/IPC, and Gifford doesn't mention Embleton. Gifford lists artists like Peter Woolcock, Fred White, Basil Reynolds, Philip Mendoza, Harry Pettit, Hugh McNeil (or McNeill?), Fred Robinson, Cyril Price, Bert Felstead and others as the brains and hands behind features like (ready?) Prince the Wonder Dog, The Gay Gordons, Dicky & Dolly, Mimi & Marmy, Sonny & Sally, Wink & Blink, Peter Puppet in Puzzleland, and others. There is a "Willow Wood" listed in the 1957 issues, but my faves based on name alone remain Wonderful Island of Yam, Moony from the Moon, Pinky & Perky, Wizard Weezle and Num Num.
There was a "breakaway character," or a character whose popular spilled over into other weeklies and, according to Neil and online sources, television. That was Sooty, whose first appearance in Playhour pops up in 1959-60, at least a couple of years after the finger-puppet bear was already a TV sensation for preschoolers and youngsters. Sooty already had his own title, too, so I reckon Playhour needed Sooty way more than Sooty needed Playhour! In any case, Neil turned up
But then, again, it appears that it was the jam-lovin' Bunny Cuddles (drawn by Hugh McNeill -- or is it McNeil?) that had won young Neil's heart as a mere lad. He's not positive; Neil remembers the strip he loved as being in color, "although it says this strip was in B&W...," Neil wrote me, after he found
Me, I'll stick with 'Hamster Balls.' And I'll leave it to Neil to explain that reference on his blog, when he's damned good and ready, hopefully with a link to my own blog to win me more virtual cuddly pals...