The time traveller in H.G. Wells’ famous novel, The Time Machine, stumbles upon the ruins of a library far into the future. After surveying the shelves, he notes, “What struck me with keenest force was the enormous waste of labour to which this sombre wilderness of rotting paper testified."

Wells would have been gratified that thanks to Google Books and Project Gutenberg, a volunteer effort to digitize all public-domain content, we are now close to getting an “eternal library", in which everything that was ever written can be accessed by anyone, from anywhere.

Among these infinite digital shelves, there is something about reading a magazine, with its stories, illustrations, letters to the editor and, most importantly, advertisements that proclaim it to be from another era

I decide to sail on these seas of forgotten words; my first port is Friardale.co.uk

***

The vast armies of surveyors, soldiers, colonial administrators, officials and clerks across the British realm were animated by a common spirit: that of the imperial mission. The Boy’s Own Paper and its imitators were responsible for triggering this. They were “story papers", weekly magazines for boys that had long-running serials praising initiative, bravery and derring-do, with a substantial dollop of racism leavened with jingoism. Above all, they emphasized “playing the game".

Till the 1870s, books for children, especially boys, were essentially religious tracts thinly disguised to make them more palatable. In contrast, in the Boy’s Own, each issue was like a complete platter; there would be stories set in boarding school, adventure, science fiction and football. These papers attracted talent ranging from Arthur Conan Doyle to Rudyard Kipling to P.G. Wodehouse.

Two of the most famous story papers were The Gem and The Magnet, both published by Amalgamated Press. The latter was the home of Billy Bunter, a fat, incredibly obtuse and thoroughly unscrupulous schoolboy whose misadventures delight as much today as they did in their heyday in the early 20th century.

Edwy Searles Brooks, with 40 million words in all to his credit (the equivalent of 800 novels), was the jewel of The Gem. His top hit was a series about a school called St Frank’s (named after his wife Frances), which was an unusual mash-up of genres—one of the teachers was a detective, with a student playing the role of John Watson, fictional detective Sherlock Holmes’ friend and assistant. Brooks would later break into the thriller market aimed at adults with snappily titled characters such as Norman Conquest and Inspector William Williams.

The uncontested king of the school story, however, was Charles Hamilton, the most prolific author in history, with 100 million words over a lifetime and no fewer than 22 known pseudonyms. The creator of Bunter generated a veritable cornucopia of characters, including Hurree Jamset Ram Singh, the princely student from India, who naturally speaks in a bizarre patois (“a bird in hand is worth two cracked pitchers that make Jack a dull boy, as the English proverb rightfully remarks").

The Friardale website, along with dozens of similar papers, has all the issues of these two magazines, which ended their run owing to the paper shortages of World War II. Opening their profusely illustrated pages, with striking cover art, is like returning to a world long dead.

The eye is invariably drawn to the advertisements, reflecting the obsessions and preoccupations of that time. There are ads for accordions and “All-British" cycles, patented cures for “Blushing & Unreasonable Fears", for something called the “Lord Roberts Target Pistol", whose use “trains the eye and cultivates the judgement", and Mousta, which guarantees the growth of a “smart, manly moustache".

***

My next stop is Stupid Comics at Misterkitty.org/extras/stupidcovers. Stupid Comics is retro with a twist. The premise can’t be beat: scanned comics supplied with additional commentary. It covers everything from the Golden Age of Comic Books, the era when superheroes were created, to the self-publishing wave of the 1980s.

“Mister Kitty", the anonymous annotator, doesn’t spare even industry legends such as Stan Lee, with annotations frequently profane but always witty. Did you know that Superman’s dog, Krypto, had his own spin-off series? The Super Canine Patrol Agents—the “Barking battalion to hound criminal curs"—series is a laugh riot when clubbed with Kitty’s commentary.

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