BILLY BUNTER IN THE KNOCKOUT
From its very first issue, dated March the 4th, 1939, The Knock-Out Comic was a riotous mixture of humour and adventure, and promoted its success with a series of free gifts that ran from March until May – most of those three months being taken with a series of animal pictures that could be put into the "Zoo Album" supplied free with issue 3. Unfortunately, the war was just around the corner and important new discoveries like Hugh McNeil were to disappear into the services, as was its editor and assistant editor. From December 1941 the Knock-Out styled itself "The Victory Comic", although at times it must have felt that the paper was at risk of folding before the allies could also boast of victory.
The first cover star of Knockout was "Our Crazy Broadcasters", a funny animal strip typical of the reaction the publishers Amalgamated Press had to the new rivalry of D. C. Thomson. The format of Knock-Out followed that of Radio Fun (which also had an animal strip on the cover totally unrelated to the ‘radio’ brief of the rest of the contents) and pinned much of its potential success on two long-running characters from the A.P.’s line of story papers. In the adventure department there was Sexton Blake, only four years off the 50th anniversary of his launch. In the ranks of the humour strips, nestled in with "Our Ernie" and "Stonehenge Kit" was another star of the A.P. juvenile department.
"Billy Bunter – The Fattest Schoolboy on Earth!" had, of course, first appeared thirty years earlier in the pages of The Magnet in 1908 and although the famous Greyfriars stories by Frank Richards did not revolve around him, Bunter evolved over into a bloated, self-absorbed, forever skint, tuck-obsessed figure of mirth. The overweight Bunter, in his chequered trousers and school blazer, had become one of the most recognisable characters ever created, and it made sense in a primarily humorous context to concentrate the comic strip on one of the most popular characters rather than try to transfer the whole cast of Greyfriars into a two page space each week. The early issues in fact had the strip drawn in a realistic style by long-time Magnet illustrator Charles H. Chapman, although the real laughs only came with the arrival of Frank Minnitt some weeks later when Chapman, for whatever reason, decided to drop out.
Minnitt was a highly distinctive artist on Bunter, although his earlier sets "Kiddo the Boy King", "Merry Margie – The Invisible Mender", "Ali Barber" and "Bob’s Your Uncle" which had appeared in the first issue were drawn in a more traditional knockabout style.
Minnitt himself was as unique as his work. Born in London in 1894, he had worked for many years for the Post Office before joining the Coldstream Guards and suffering terrible depravations during the Great War; apart from attacks of Mustard Gas, he was once buried alive in the trenches for three days with only a pipe connecting him to the outside world. After being demobbed, Minnitt returned to the Post Office, but was fired after throwing a punch at one of his seniors. He subsequently found work through a family friend as a welder with a taxi firm.
Minnitt, intelligent but ill-educated, dabbled in drawing cartoons and began selling to the A.P. in the mid-1920s and began drawing sets for various titles in Dick Chance’s stable, Butterfly, Comic Life and Illustrated Chips.
To the editors at A.P., Minnitt was never one of the top artists and whilst he worked quickly, there was rarely enough work to keep him fully occupied, and by the late 1930s was finding his work being turned down regularly and his money tight. To see him through the bad times, he took the job of roadsweeper with the local Council, his assignment including Farringdon Street which allowed him to call on editors at Fleetway House.
Doubtless it was during one of these calls that he learned of the new title being prepared by Monty Hayden’s department, and was in the right place at the right time to draw a number of assignments. And when C. H. Chapmen left Bunter, Minnitt took over and made the strip his own, introducing a foil to Bunter’s comical capers in Jones Minor and taking the strip into more traditional cartoon territory. Although not appreciated by the old-time Magnet crowd, Minnitt’s round-style drawing was very much in favour with his younger fans of the new Knock-Out Comic, and he was to continue drawing the strip for the next eighteen years.
To many, Minnitt’s is the ultimate Bunter comic strip. Although Frank Richards received a £5 honorarium payment for the use of his creation, the script and artwork, at least until the end of the war, were both by Frank Minnitt, and Minnitt loved the strip. His daughter recalled many occasions when Frank would finish a set and call her into the spare bedroom he used as a studio: "Come and see what Bunter is up to today, Betty." They would spend the next twenty minutes in fits of giggles as Frank went over his work, reading the story aloud to her.
After the war, the two page Bunter strip was cut to a single page and was now written by an A.P. script writers. Minnitt had re-married in 1947 and, at the age of 56, became a father again. With so many papers folded due to the war and with the newer publishers who sprang up in the late 1940s and early 1950s paying the lowest rates possible, Minnitt struggled to find a home for his work. Changes in the editorial department over the same period meant new brooms making sweeping changes, and Minnitt’s work was by then considered old fashioned.
Frank Minnitt fell ill in early 1958, and, to their credit, the Amalgamated Press kept him on full pay, and later half-pay, during the course of his illness which ended with his death on May 12, 1958.
His replacement was another Knock-Out regular, Eric Roberts, although over the next few years artists like Reg Parlett, Arthur Martin, Les Barton and Albert Pease all had a hand in the strip to keep it running every week. The popularity of the Bunter strip was one of the best selling-points the paper had, and they made full use of the character, having him host the jokes page – "Billy Bunter’s Six of the Best" (drawn by Eric Roberts and Reg Parlett) from 1959, and promoting him to the title star in 1961 when the former Knockout (as it had been since 1948) became Billy Bunter’s Knockout from the June 10th issue, and for a while his adventures ran to three pages, including the colour cover.
Unfortunately, Bunter was promoted to the title just as the Amalgamated Press – or Fleetway Publications as they had become in 1959 – were modernising their comics. The new style for humour comics was led by Buster in 1960 and the adventure comic revamped with the launch of Valiant in 1962. Bunter, almost certainly considered too old-fashioned, lost his headline status in July 1962, and Knockout itself came to an end in February 1963 when it was merged with Valiant. Bunter continued to appear in Valiant until that too folded in 1975, drawn by Albert Pease and, for most of its years, by Reg Parlett.
"Frank Minnitt" by Alan Clark (Golden Fun, Summer 1986)
Knockout Comic: An Illustrated Guide by David Ashford, John Allen-Clarke & Steve Holland (CJ Publications, 1997)
© 2001 Steve Holland
Last revised: 29 March 2001