Almost forgotten now, a fat anachronism from a bygone age, the appallingly obese school boy Billy Bunter – the fat owl of the Remove, was greedy, gluttonous, snobby, light-fingered, untruthful, prying, deceitful, obtuse, lazy, boastful, cowardly, and, by contemporary standards, a bit of a racist – is without doubt the greatest antihero ever. That said, Bunter also had some redeeming features, when he had funds he was generous, when he had oodles of tuck he shared it, and when, push came to shove, someone was in danger or needed help, Bunter would somehow, amazingly try and do the right thing, often with spectacularly funny results.
Created in 1908 by the writer Charles Hamilton, writing as Frank Richards, for the new Magnet comic, Bunter was originally just one of many new characters that inhabited the fictitious Public School, Greyfriars, in Kent. Here he created a world like no other, where every character seemed to have their own unique personality, from Harry Wharton, a troubled but strong-willed youth, to Horace Coker, a fearless, not very bright giant, whose aunts sent generous hampers on a regular basis which in turn drew the attention of the fat owl (so called because of Bunter’s round glasses through which his eyes starred and blinked); to the absurdly pompous Mr Prout and the stern, but fair, Mr Quelch.
Over time Bunter rose from being a minor character to stealing the show, so much so that from the mid-nineteen twenties and on through the nineteen thirties, the Magnet’s acknowledged golden age, Bunter reigned supreme and was, without question, a star comic creation, along the lines of Dennis the Menace, William, Adrian Mole and perhaps Horrid Henry. Yet the Magnet was really an illustrated story book, with some illustrations and not a comic in the traditional sense, and this made the stories, often written as a series to be told over a number of issues, the equivalent of reading a novel. As such the stories imprinted Bunter and the other inhabitants of Greyfriars into the minds of the Magnets thousands of readers.
Richards essentially wrote a short story every week for the next thirty or so years, until 1941 in fact, when paper restrictions caused by the second world war meant that the Magnet was cancelled.
Although Bunter reappeared in book form in the 1950s, and was the transformed into a BBC children’s show, nothing captured the magic of the original Magnet stories and these were beautifully reprinted in their entirety during the 1970s by the publisher Howard Baker who painstakingly put together all 1600 plus issues in a series of bound volumes. An extraordinary undertaking that brought and introduced Bunter and Greyfriars to a whole new generation, including me, and ensured that his legend lived on. Yarooh!