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PG Tips Special:

The Graphic Novelist's Progress

To know where we are going to, we need to know where we’ve come from. This is true of our lives as well as our culture. In the case of the comics medium, its date of birth used to be hotly contested. Twenty years ago, on October 30th 1989, it was finally to be decided at a historic summit or “Incontri” organised by the Lucca Comics Festival in Italy. When the international jury convened to determine which was the first major character, all but one member gave in to American lobbying and signed an agreement selecting The Yellow Kid, created by Richard F. Outcault and published in Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World newspaper. Below is Portuguese expert Vasco Granja’s copy of the agreement which is translated along these lines:

“The eleven international specialists, gathered in Lucca, establish by absolute majority that 1896 was the year of birth of the comics. This was the year in which, through the character of The Yellow Kid, the comics, assuming the expressive contributions provided previously by creators from various countries, launched those special linguistic characteristics which would transform it into a new medium of communication.”

And this became the much-repeated official history (so much so that 1996 was marked as the centenary of comics, even though The Yellow Kid was actually first printed in the newspaper in 1895). The exception on the jury in Lucca was the British comics historian Denis Gifford, who pointedly signed his name as Ally Sloper to champion instead the once hugely popular, bulbous-nosed East End rogue, conceived years before in 1867 in Judy magazine, a rival to Punch.

Read more Ally Sloper at The Early Comics Archive

No doubt Gifford was aware that, in their search for “the first”, he could have gone back earlier still, at least as far as 1732 and the first of William Hogarth’s suites of narrative prints, A Harlot’s Progress. In Thierry Smolderen’s revelatory study in French, Naissances de la Bande Dessinée (Births of the Comics), and the related exhibition at the Maison Autrique, Brussels, the Belgian theorist charts a succession of “births” from Outcault’s Yellow Kid back to Genevan pioneer Rodolphe Töpffer, but he toasts Hogarth as the form’s prime 18th century precursor. He singles out the way Hogarth brought together high and low imagery, from compositions based on the elevated rhetoric of history painting to the populist taste for symbolic emblems, graphic satires, signs and graffiti, fashioning a “polygraphic” language which is able to work with irony and humour on many levels and “pay witness to the complexity, tensions and contradictions of the times.”

In his apparently sober moralising Progresses, Hogarth is himself looking over his shoulder and sharing an in-joke by ironically recasting the popular genre of edifying stories in pictures from late 17th century Venice, placing them in the grubby hurly-burly of London and treating them as worthy of being painted and then engraved with the sort of care reserved only for the most noble of subjects. Hogarth’s polygraphic language and playful subversion of traditions of illustration and art can still be found in the work of many of today’s graphic novelists.

The anthropomorphic tradition runs deep in British popular graphics. After Lewis Carroll in Alice in Sunderland (2007) and Beatrix Potter in The Tale of One Bad Rat (1995), Bryan Talbot returns to mine its rich veins for his “science-romance thriller”, entitled Grandville in honour of the French caricaturist and his humanised animals. In the classic mode of a locked-room murder mystery, a presumed suicide shows up in the twee Agatha Christie-style village of Nutwood - the name a nod to Mary Tourtel’s Rupert, whose bear-faced father makes two gardening cameos here. With Holmesian skill, LeBrock, our badger-headed inspector, deduces that this was murder. It is all of sixteen pages into his tale, however, when Talbot cleverly scuppers our assumption that LeBrock and his adjunct, rat-about-town Detective Ratzi, are speaking English. Ratzi is puzzled by the villagers’ “funny lingo” and Brock explains, “It is still spoken in some rural communities. It’s English.” We learn that in this “steampunk” or alternative Victorian science fiction era, the French won the Napoleonic War, Britain has been subsumed into France’s global empire and the seminal futuristic fantasies of Jules Verne and Albert Robida are part of everyday life.

To this Talbot adds topical allegory by reimagining some of the theories behind the 9/11 attacks and the war on terror, folding them into a plot conceived by an extreme right-wing leader, a white rabbit named Lapin (after Le Pen). Lapin has swept to power on a wave of fear, a xenophobic panic of British terrorists bent on independence, which he has secretly orchestrated so that he can annexe Britain’s newly discovered North Sea oilfield. Talbot loves a good pun and will construct whole characters and set pieces to indulge in wordplay or references to movie, art and comics history: for example, the first victim is an otter named Raymond Leigh-Otter, while a mouse from Art Spiegelman’s Maus becomes the figure on a crucifix. Talbot sticks to another tradition, devised to save time making early animated films, by giving his humanised menagerie only three fingers and a thumb. Structured around a solid conspiracy caper with bursts of Tarantino-like mayhem, one pivotal scene touches the heart; LeBrock tracks down a certain “Snowy Milou”, alias Tintin’s former canine companion, finding him ailing and semi-delirious in an opium den based on Gustave Doré‘s 1872 engraving. Elsewhere, what Grandville might lack in emotional engagement, it more than makes up for by being such a witty, multi-referential romp through a vividly realised topsy-turvy world.

The choice of design aesthetics, the book as object, is often vital to a modern graphic novel’s identity. Grandville seems to come from the past, packaged in a nostalgic cloth binding with glorious art nouveau endpapers of cogs, dials and regulators. Similarly, Salem Brownstone begins as a tactile experience, for it is hard to resist stroking its purple fabric-lined hard covers with their Beardsleyesque decoration. The period feel continues in the often febrile ornateness of Nikhil Singh’s draughtsmanship, which at times is reminiscent of Arthur Rackham, Edward Gorey, or the stranger reaches of psychedelic posters of the Sixties. When they first arrived in Britain, the two young South Africans, the writer John Harris Dunning and the artist Singh, saw London as a romanticised Gothic dreamscape steeped in their favourite fictions and spent seven years nurturing their own. The stage is set in Salem Brownstone, as the orphaned young Salem discovers that he must take on his father’s role as protector of this dimension from mystic evils, but Dunning and Singh spice these familiar Harry Potter trappings with a quirky cast, which includes circus performer Cassandra Contortionist and Salem’s unearthly fish-like familiar, as well as some decidedly dark villainy. The intricacies of certain panels by Singh, most of which are bafflingly crafted at the same size as the printed pages, tempt you into losing yourself in their obsessional oddness, while Dunning’s words complement them by veering between the florid rock lyric - “a thousand stinging whipchord saviours” - arch or bitchy banter and complete restraint, allowing the visuals to do all the talking. Though published by Walker Books, this is by no means a treat solely for teens and but for all ages, providing they have a penchant for the bizarre.

A different retro take on the far out is provided by Bruce Paley, whose recollections of rock, sex and drugs are visualised by his British partner Carol Swain in Giraffes In My Hair. In this Hogarthian “Progress”, made up of short episodes covering more than ten years, Paley is our first-person, past-tense guide through a “Summer Odyssey”, crossing America in the Sixties as a wide-eyed, Kerouac-loving hippy. He ends as a punk in the Seventies, shooting cocaine and for his 30th birthday, single and jobless, treating himself to a five-dollar hooker. Infused with the atmosphere of Edward Hopper’s paintings and American urban and landscape photography, Swain’s charcoal drawings contrast nuanced textures and shadows, especially in nature and skies, with harder black outlines for figures and the man-made world. Her characters’ facial expressions are muted, understated, emotions largely internalised, mouths rarely smiling, or even open. Her viewpoint is almost always shifting, perhaps one moment sweeping up into the air, the next plunging to earth, this circling and hovering around the protagonists suggesting the restlessness of the characters’ thoughts, as well as the reader’s remote, voyeuristic curiosity. They say that if you can remember the Sixties, you probably weren’t there. Unlike Johnny Thunders, whom Paley meets, on the way down and then in a dream after his death, we know that Paley has somehow survived to record this frank, unsweetened memoir of his walks on the wild side.

For some thirty years, the Glaswegian cartoonist Eddie Campbell has been chronicling his loves, family and friends, his foibles and follies, through his alter ego, Alec McGarry, and now he has gathered them into “a life-sized omnibus”. The genre is flourishing now, but in 1981 autobiography was unusual, especially in the British small presses where Campbell began by self-publishing. His arabesque anecdotes eschew the angst-ridden confessionals of Robert Crumb and relate more closely to another tradition of good-humoured insights into the ever-changing life around us by observant social humorists such as Pont in his “British Character” series in Punch, or the Americans Frank King and Clare Briggs.

Campbell delights in puncturing his own pomposity of aspiring to be “an artist” while struggling to be a responsible husband, father and breadwinner. Like Swain, he sticks mainly to a uniform nine-panel grid, three-by-three, setting an unhurried steadiness which suits his yarn-spinning asides and detours. This fluidity allows him at one stage to remember sitting “in the garden painting oils of rhubard patches and full dustbins”. His aunt asked him, “Why don’t you paint nice scenes?”. He explains: “To me, these are the ‘nice scenes’”. He sums up his attitude: “I had no ambition beyond life’s daily round and the weekend celebration of it.”

Campbell has an unerring eye for revealing body language, at times from photographs, achieving a sort of Letratone Impressionism by overlaying shards of grey mechanical tones. In How To Be An Artist, he wryly documents his own erratic career and that of the emerging graphic novel itself, while three chapters of an unfinished History of Humour place comics and the comical within a long tradition. He bemoans the way “we’ve come to think of humour as a genre, separated off onto its own shelf, instead of being mixed up with the sacred essence of everything.” In drunken stupor or existential despair, even when he has lost his sense of humour, Campbell can still find the essential comedy in life.

In contrast to the ruminative romantic Alec McGarry, Nigel Auchterlounie’s Spleenal continues another tradition in comics from Andy Capp to Sid the Sexist, that of the irredeemable chauvinist male. Auchterlounie insists that Spleenal is not autobiographical, although he admits in his afterword: “I guess there’s a little of Spleenal in me after all.” Spleenal is a button-nosed, oddly floating, footless and feckless philanderer. Three flashback vignettes, to his infancy, school and college days, confirm his obnoxiousness. Between these, two longer farces about the “adult” Spleenal portray a loving husband and father of two, a frustrated cartoonist who feels caged in by his responsibilities. “Spleenal’s Spanky Comic” sweeps us into the mad mind games and moral minefields through which he, his wife and his masochistic mistress witlessly stumble.

In “The Day After the End of Time”, Spleenal invents a time machine and travels back to try and stop his younger self from having sex with his girlfriend (it had led to her pregnancy and their marriage). In a masterful twist, when a future version of himself comes back in time to give him a time machine, he fancies his own future bearded self and gives him a snog. Auchterlounie can’t stop his cartoon leading man from doing whatever he pleases, beset by hilarious indecisiveness and yet always succumbing to temptation. “The little bastard… refused to learn anything. Some people you just can’t help.”

We may be loathe to admit it, but Spleenal is a reminder of the non-PC anarchist lurking in all of us. That is a fundamental role of comics, the comical jester, daring to say and do what polite society cannot. As Campbell states, “The foundation of all humour is: that just as we have a head… so also do we have an arse.”

Posted: December 20, 2009

An edited version of this article first appeared in The Times Literary Supplement on December 18th 2009.


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Births Of The Comic Strips
Maison Autrique, Brussells
5 November 2009 to
25 April 2010

Nigel Auchterlounie
Eddie Campbell
John Harris Dunning
Bruce Paley
Nikhil Singh
Carol Swain
Bryan Talbot

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Bruce Paley
Bryan Talbot
Carol Swain
Early Comics
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