Found in the Peter Haining archive this piece by his friend the tireless researcher W.O.G. Lofts. Both men noted in former jots. Minnitt is not forgotten as long as Billy Bunter is still part of our culture and it is worthwhile recording this Lofts piece which appears not to have been published.
Frank J. Minnitt - Billy Bunter Artist in The Knockout.
By W.O.G. Lofts.
Every so often someone emerges from the shadows as it were to become the leading light of the show. An understudy replaces the star and becomes an overnight hit. A reserve footballer or twelfth man cricketer is promoted to the first team, and scores a hat trick, plus the winning goal, or a sparkling ceatury as the case may be. Another case in point: when Gerald Campion - a small part actor on the screen- landed the T.V. part of Billy Bunter. Completely unknown to the public at large, overnight he became a star. And so it was once with a comic artist named Prank J. Minnitt, who after years of plodding along, drawing the centre pages of small - now long forgotten strips - when was given the job of illustrating a character who today is a household word. The name of course being Billy Bunter the fat boy of Greyfriars School in Kent.
Although one can write the whole life story and history of Billy Bunter, almost nothing is known at all about the artist who drew him in Knockout except for his birth and death dates. Born in 1892, possibly at Warlord, nothing is known of him until his work appears on the scene in 1927 in several Amalgamated Press comic papers. His art work that featured in such top selling papers as Chips Jester, and Joker, with a curious rounded style (that was to stand him in good stead in later years) could be said to be competent enough to fill the centre pages. Never in the class of Bert Brown, Percy Cooking, G.W. Wakefield, or Roy Wilson, he was never even considered to duplicate like most artists for these great illustrators. His style was so distinctive that it is hard to see how he could copy any other artists work. Seemingly, he was just content to plug along, eking out a living for a few guineas a week, and never improving sufficent to get bigger commissions to draw the front pages.
According to the late John Jukes. comic artist of 'Alfie the Air-Tramp' fame in The Joker who knew him: About 1938, Minnitt had found that his work had tapered off to some extent, so until things improved he had obtained a temporary job on the Holborn Borough Council. This believe it or not, required the sweeping of the roads, including the one outside the mighty Fleetway House in Farringon Street. This in a way was very convenient for him as he was able to pop in and out the offices with odd bits of art-work, and especially to be on the scene if any new comic papers were likely to be produced. One day he struck lucky as Knockout and Radio Fun, were being prepared to combat the opposition of D.C. Thomson's Beano and Dandy, and he was commissioned to draw several new strips for the former, these being....
'Kiddo the Boy King', 'Ali Barba', 'Merry Margie -
Invisible Mender', and 'Bob's Your Uncle'.
To the forefront of the new Knockout were the old great favourites of the Amalgamated Press, and easily their greatest money-spinners-Billy Bunter and Sexton Blake the great Baker Street Detective.
At this stage, it is worth recording some details about the Billy Bunter strip, that did appear in the first nine issues of Knockout drawn by C.H. Chapman the Magnet artist. Around 1939, he had illustrated a few similar for the Magnet, and it was felt that here were the ideal type of picture strips for the new venture. Readers of The Magnet were urged to read these panels in the Knockout, whilst the latter readers were advised and recommended to read the full length school stories in the Magnet. Chapman's work could not be faulted, with amusing picture strips of authentic school incidents that even the most ardent Greyfriars story fan would enjoy. Unfortunately, there was only one snag, as he could not keep this up for long on a weekly schedule, with other work as well. As any artist knows, it takes much longer, and requires far more painstaking detail to draw panels of human looking figures, than the quick, slick, cartoon type of drawing.
Consequently, after only nine weekly instalments the Knockout had to find a new artist. Several were tried but without much success, then the editors decided that as Billy Bunter was an extremely amusing character, there was no earthly reason who he should not appear in comic strip format. Frank J. Minitt who happened to be in the editors office just at the right moment, and also due to his rounded style of drawing, was then given the weekly job of producing strips of the famous fat boy of Greyfriars. After a slow beginning, he gradually brought into the strips his own ideas of the character, so that in time, many new readers identified him only as the true likeness of Frank Richards' comical character. Most of the weekly episodes dealt with the misdeeds of Bunter against his deadly foe, Mr Quelch the Remove Form Master. By 1942 however, Minnitt had introduced another foil in the small shape of Jones Minor, a be-spectacled youth, who looked more like a Third Former than a fellow Removite.
The Magnet which incidentally had finished suddenly through paper shortage in May 1940, with readers stranded in mid-air at the start of a new series, had been urged by a caption printed in big letters at the top front page of the Knockout that......
'This is the Magnet'
the actual incorporation being printed Knockout and Magnet on the June 10th 1940 issue. Regarding the Magnet, some details are needed to give the reader some idea of its stories and readership. It was a school story paper with weekly tales of Greyfriars written by 'Frank Richards'. Starting in February 1908 until May 1940, it had produced 1,683 full length stories of Greyfriars. The readership could be roughly in the twelve to eighteen year old group ranging upwards to include many adult readers from way back. In its hey day, there was no doubt that it was an extremely popular paper with a circulation of 250,000 at its peak. Over the years and especially in the thirties it had gradually declined due to the growing popularity of the D.C. Thomson papers. By 1940 its circulation was in the 85,000 mark. The stories by 'Frank Richards' were all exceedingly well written, and were of a far higher standard than one usually found in boys fiction. They were indeed so well written that thousands of adults today can still get as much pleasure from reading them, or Howard Baker reprints-as they did in their youth. Most readers had long put the reading of comics behind them, and it was in a sense completely unrealistic to expect them to revert from top class school stories to picture or comic strips. It is conceded that some very young Magnet readers may have enjoyed at least the Bunter strips by C.H. Chapman in Knockout-but on the whole the majority of readers considered it an insult to their intelligence. As there were at least four stories in hand when the Magnet closed, with several others in preparation, it would have been far more sensible to have reprinted these stories in a shorter instalments in the Knockout. This would have gained a number of the old Magnet readers. As it was, many of the old Magnet readers were outraged by the whole affair. The stories in hand were never used, but were eventually lost when a Director died. As they were paid for it was a complete loss to the Company. Roy Nash, an ardent Greyfriars fan and British Film critic, writing in a Forces Newspaper compared the new comic strip of Bunter to 'like a pale N.A.A.F.I. tea-cake of a character'. Many others who were tempted to buy a copy of the Knockout with the lure of the sub-title 'and Magnet' probably gnashed their teeth with rage at reading about Jones minor (never a character in the Greyfriars stories) and also hearing mention of Harry Wharton's sister - when he was the only child. There was also at times incredible dialogue of Mr Bunter calling Mr Quelch 'Quelchy', and on odd times of the latter holding out his hand for the school fees ! Unheard of things in the Greyfriars set-up.
On the other hand, the editor of Knockout could have easily made the valid point, that his new paper was of a modern type of picture and story paper, and he was catering for a complete new generation of readers. There was no room for the old sentiment of traditional school stories, and with some justification could claim that already in 1940, the sales were at least six times that the Magnet had been when it was closed, and sales were rising weekly all the time. There was no question that young readers loved Billy Bunter in his new role, as he had shoals of letters to prove it. Billy Bunter had become easily the most popular character in his paper. In the fifties with his new found fame, Frank J. Minnitt was able to get other commissions in the smaller comic field, some edited by Denis Gifford. It is also interesting to note that Denis also supplied plots, ideas, and layouts for Billy Bunter strips at one period. With his extra income Minnitt was able to open a Health and Sports Gymnasium near his home at Westcliffe-on-Sea.
According to Knockout records, Minnitt was a most prolific worker, was always on schedule, often many weeks in advance with his strip, so consequently he never (as far as one can discover) missed a week during his long run on Billy Bunter. Certainly other artists work was held in reserve in case he fell ill, but as far as it is known their contributions were never used.
Gwyn Price was one of them, whilst another was the Scot, Wally Robertson, whose work was once rejected as Bunter was drawn oversize.
Actually to be fair, contrary to popular belief, it was not easy to draw Bunter with his gross though small structure, whilst Mr Quelch had to be much taller as well as very angular.
Readers may wonder the reaction of Frank Richards - the creator - in seeing his famous fat boy in comic strip form. Curiously, as far as I know, he never made any comment at all. Incidently it is interesting to note that he was paid an honorarium of £5 per week each time the strip appeared- this for 22 years right up to his death in 1961. This was due to the kindness of Monty Haydon the Controlling editor, and not connected with the copyright which he had sold to the Amalgamated Press way back in 1921. Haydon knew in 1940 that when the Magnet ceased Frank Richards was cut off without any income. Amusingly enough though not to the artist is that Frank Richards was recieving more than the artist himself in 1940 - though by 1950 due to inflation and Minnitt's rising prestige the payment had risen by three times. One must also of course remember that these rates should be multiplied by almost twelve times to get todays prices.
In the Summer of 1958, Frank J. Minnitt died suddenly and due to his output always being well in advance as mentioned earlier there was no panic in the Knockout office. W. Titcombe a fellow artist who had been substituting on 'Our Ernie' strip took over for a while than E.A. Roberts and A.T. (Charlie) Pease jointly drew the strips until the paper was incorporated into Valiant in 1962.
Probably the greatest tribute that one could give to Frank J. Minnitt was that on the 10th of June 1961 the paper had been retitled 'Billy Bunter's Knockout, This clearly illustrates how Minnitt had succeeded in popularising Bunter. The character had taken over the paper in the same way as Billy Bunter had cause The Magnet to be sub-titled 'Billy Bunter's Own Paper' in the thirties.
Whilst Billy Bunter ceased to appear in I.P.C. comics in the seventies - though reprints are still popular in Holland the astonishing fact is that in comic strip form he ran longer than the 32 years he had appeared in school story format. Like the post-war Bunter Books and T.V. shows, Billy Bunter certainly amused many generations of new readers, and one feels that the fat boy of Greyfriars will still be around for a long time to come.
Billy Bunter is world famous, and now a household word, and knowing Bunter it would seem impossible for him to lie low and keep quiet for very long.