Hood’s Comic Annuals, Early to Last as Exemplar of Its Genre
Thomas Hood’s literary career ranged from early attempts at serious poetry to his maturing as a major humorist, to his final role as a social protest poet. His longest-lived publication was the Comic Annual, which he edited. It eventually had four different publishers during its eleven years of publication (1830-9, 1842). Hood first edited The Gem, which appeared in 1828 and established him as a poet, humorist, and journalist. Hood resigned the editorship because of disagreements with his publisher. He also quit, when on the brink of its success, The Athenaeum, a new journal he helped to found and partly owned (Jeffrey 56). These two actions showed his poor business acumen, which along with chronic ill health would characterize problems that he had all of his life. Capitalizing on the great popularity of annuals, Hood put together the first Comic Annual mostly from his own works.
This first Comic Annual of 1830 was widely imitated; two other comic annuals at that time included: The Comic Offering: The Ladies’ Mélange of Literary Mirth from 1831 to 1835, edited by Louisa Sheridan, and The Humourist of 1831-2, edited by William Henry Harrison. Hood became incensed when even his own publisher brought out two rival comic annuals and used Hood’s name in advertising them. Hood’s chronic problems with publishers and printers would continue throughout his career. The 1831 annual was used in this analysis because it is representative of its genre.
The Comic Annual for 1831 is typically pocket-sized (6.25 by 4 inches) as most annuals were at that time. It has printed paperboards with a leather back strip. The page edges are gilt. The cover has figured designs with the lettering on the front “The Anniversary of Literary Fun 1831” and “Laughing Gas” on the back. It contains 31 selections in 176 pages. There are 20 poems (95 pages) and 11 stories (81 pages).
The longest poem is 11 pages and the longest story is 20 pages. There are 50 plates and 30 head and tailpieces, all designed by Hood and printed by Bonner and Willis.
Figure 1 shows examples of Hood’s illustrations. Although trained as an engraver, Hood’s drawings here are woodcuts, somewhat coarse in craftsmanship, and the jokes attached to them appear fairly crude to modern taste.
The majority of Hood’s readers were of the middle and lower middle classes, and they apparently preferred items with domestic sentiment and puns that point to a moral. Hood appears to have been a natural punner, and his humor plays on the boundary between the comic and the tragic.
Hood’s poem, “The Duel - A Serious Ballad,” is a series of puns about two lovers of the same woman who challenge each other to a duel. These men, Hood quips, sought a friend apiece, so that when they were dead they would have “two seconds to live!” They both found their pistol hands shaking too much for aim, but they couldn’t call it off without a shot, for there would be “strange reports.” “So up into the air their bullets they sent, and may all other duels have that upshot in the end” (Hood 1831: 110). This poem is illustrated in Figure 1. This caricature shows how Hood, a punster of genius, moralizes, and contrives words for sounds as well as for significance (Jerrold 257).
Hood also plays on words in “Cockle and Cackle,” a tale about Cockle’s pills that are anti-bilious if taken in a timely way to medicate the liver. Some chickens accidentally eat these pills and die: “undone by Cockle they gave their last cackle.” A woman tries to boil the dead chickens for dinner, but they won’t boil because they had eaten the anti-biling [boiling] pills!