Okay, now we’re starting on the right foot. For those of you not in the know, Old Bill was a character created by Bruce Bairnfather, a British soldier, during World War I. Bairnfather’s trench-drawn cartoons were run in British newspapers and quickly became a huge hit — much in the same way as Bill Mauldin’s did here in World War II. The first reprint book of the Old Bill cartoons, titled Fragments from France, was a huge international bestseller. After the war Bairnsfather continued drawing his Old Bill character and it remained popular in Britain through the 20s and 30s.
In an attempt at rekindling Bairnsfather’s popularity in the States several syndicates tried distributing Old Bill cartoons here over the years. They were, without exception, syndication failures. Our subject today is the first of those syndication attempts, this one by Bell Syndicate. This one is exceedingly rare — I’d heard of its existence from a Bairnsfather researcher awhile back, but had never seen it with my own peepers. However, just the other day I happened upon the series while indexing the Philadelphia Record. It was a weekly panel that ran there from August 1 1920 to January 30 1921 (of course it might have run longer elsewhere).
I chose a few of the better cartoons to run here as samples, but the problem with the series was its British sensibility – quite a few of the cartoons in the run are written about peculiarly British subjects in a peculiarly British way, making them all but unintelligible to an American audience. This even though the first cartoon in the series (the first cartoon above) seems to be indicating that Bairnfather was either in the U.S. to create the series, or at least was creating these cartoons specifically for the American market. A mystery, that!