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Comics and the Critics:

A Freakish Kind of Writing

The poet William Wordsworth was probably not a comics fan. He lived up to his surname, because above all else he prized the worth and worthiness of words. In 1846, Wordsworth was in his mid-Seventies and was so alarmed by the growing popularity of Charles Dickens’ illustrated serialised novels and such highly visual periodicals as Punch launched in 1841 and The Illustrated London News in 1842 [two pages of a coloured comic from their 1888 Christmas number, above], that he penned a fourteen-line poem berating this burgeoning phenomenon. Published posthumously in 1850, his poem entitled ‘Illustrated Books and Newspapers’ is a primer of the anxieties and analogies common to critics of comics, as shown in these irate rhymes:

      Now prose and verse sunk into disrepute
      Must lacquey a dumb Art that best can suit
      The taste of this once-intellectual Land.
      A backward movement surely have we here,
      From manhood - back to childhood; for the age -
      Back towards caverned life’s first rude career.
      Avaunt this vile abuse of pictured page!

Today Wordsworth must be rotating in his grave at the speed of a Formula 1 turbo engine. London’s hallowed bastion of literary accomplishments and archive of national treasures, The British Library, who preserve the poet’s manuscripts for the nation, is filling its PACCAR Gallery all summer till August 19th with Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK, the biggest and boldest exhibition of British comics ever seen in this country. Much of it is drawn from the Library’s own enormous collection of comics in all their printed forms spanning from the 15th to 21st centuries, from a brightly coloured block-book adapting Bible stories into medieval comics to the latest frontiers of digital hypercomics and comics as gallery installations. Could this landmark exhibition be another sign of the dumbing down of culture, or the overdue ascendance of a much-maligned medium?

Comics have always had their critics but what lies behind much of their criticisms is a peculiar resistance to their blending of prose and pictures. Revolving in another grave perhaps even faster than Wordsworth will be the German critic Gotthold Lessing, who eighty years earlier than Wordsworth’s poem was writing Laocoon, his 1766 polemical essay in which he compared “the limits of painting and poetry”. Lessing asserted that painting works in space and depicts one moment perceived all at once, whereas poetry is apprehended in time and so can depict a succession of moments. Lessing therefore insisted that painting and poetry be kept entirely apart to avoid tainting each other and turning a painting into “a speaking picture” or a text into “a freakish kind of writing”. In Britain, William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress (above) had already flouted these rules in 1732 by narrating in six paintings, published as engravings with accompanying texts, the fate of a country girl newly arrived in London who becomes a prostitute. Keeping writing and drawing pure, keeping text unillustrated, keeping painting unsullied by verbiage or any sort of ‘reading’, would become credos of both the literary and art establishments. First translated into English in 1836, Lessing’s separatist theory is still being read, taught and believed, insisting that boundaries between art and literature be maintained for good reason, because their violation leads to bad art and to bad literature.

Under this system, you could probably not get something more fundamentally subversive than comics, because they dare to suggest that words are not superior to pictures nor distinct from them, and worse still that the verbal and the visual should abuse the printed page and meet, mix and interbreed. The results, the speaking pictures and freakish writings of comics, have troubled not only purist logophiles or art-lovers but authorities and moral guardians ever since. What makes certain people so concerned about comics? It’s more than the way they upset purist logophiles or art-lovers. Perhaps it is due to their apparent ability to get inside our heads. They harness our memories and use them to implant new ones, by requiring our brains to build connections between words and pictures, and also between panels, not merely one panel after another in sequence, but in networks across each page and through an entire book. As Comics Unmasked shows, this makes them a powerful tool of communication and education, used across a wide spectrum of messages, from the Young National Front and Anti-Nazi League (above, panel from Action Pact, 1979) on issues of racism to the Health Education Authority and the Death cigarettes brand about smoking. Comics have been employed since the Second World War by the U.S. Army to instruct and motivate soldiers to maintain their weapons and equipment. According to the Pentagon Press Office in 2002, when this process of producing military training manuals was under review around 1981, research by the US Army concluded that, comparing the options of plain text, illustrated text, text with photos or comics, comics proved the most effective in getting information across and getting it to stick.

Sixty years ago, there was genuine concern about the persuasive powers of American comics books, particularly of the horror and crime genres, which were being imported, reprinted and imitated in Britain. An informal alliance of interested parties, uniting unlikely figures such as the Archbishop of Canterbury and members of the Communist Party, operating behind the ‘Comics Campaign Council’, drummed up a moral panic and called for a government ban. The first ever exhibition of modern comics in Britain may well have been the National Union of Teachers’ scare-mongering display in November 1954 of the worst offenders in their London headquarters, not far from The British Library today at King’s Cross. On one wall, five lurid sample pages from horror comics were introduced with the large title ‘KILL!’ and a caption asking ‘Should your child see this?’ (above). Apparently no recordings survive of the discussions about these comics broadcast on BBC television and radio, but recorded debates in Parliament reveal the misgivings about trying to curb them without imposing wider press censorship. The Children and Young Persons (Harmful Publications) Act of 1955 resulted in only two prosecutions in 1970, but the stigma of comics as ‘harmful publications’ has never entirely gone away. How many British parents have disapproved and disposed of their children’s comics or forbidden them from entering the house?

The Comics Unmasked exhibition confronts and challenges the perceived dangers of comics, harking back to similar fears about their predecessors, Victorian ‘penny dreadfuls’, as well as the obscenity trials of adult underground magazines Oz (above) and Nasty Tales and the media furore over the violent boys’ weekly Action in the Seventies (below), to ask what hidden agendas lay behind these phenomena. No other medium, except perhaps animation, has been so strongly associated in Britain with being solely for children as comics, despite the fact that adults have always read them from their earliest forms. Coined in 1964, the ‘graphic novel’ provided another term for comics to rebrand them and encourage adults to approach them afresh, but it’s proved problematic, loathed by many creators and readers. Its reception among the literary world has been equally mixed. Try as they might, the graphic forms of the novel can’t help being subversive of the respectable, prose-only novel tradition and canon by daring to question the superiority of words and merge texts with images. When Posy Simmonds’ Gemma Bovery and Tamara Drewe revisit the novels, edgy themselves in their day, by Flaubert and Hardie, she blurs the boundaries between homage, pastiche, reinterpretation and subversion. Rather than loading her pages with text to overcome the supposed restrictions of the form, Simmonds incorporates her writing to expand the graphic novel’s potential spanning from pure prose to wordless sequential art. Unlike the tidy couples and feel-good ending of Stephen Frears’ Tamara Drewe movie, Simmonds’ original took some much darker twists, notably the fate of one of the teenage girls.

Graphic novels may have smuggled comics onto bookshop and library shelves and university literature courses and scooped occasional literary prizes, notably the 2012 Costa Biography Prize won by Mary and Bryan Talbot’s Dotter of her Father’s Eyes (below), but comics still have their detractors. Bemused by the “extraordinary” news of two nominations for the Costa Awards, the critic John Walsh in The Independent (November 21st 2012) decried graphic novels as “a bastard version of the real thing.” In his view, “Good novels are made of words, without drawings that helpfully show the expressions on characters’ faces.” Walsh may be unaware that characters in comics are not always portrayed as crude caricatures demonstrating their feelings. Complexity is possible through the counterpoints, contrasts and contradictions between what is written and what is shown. The tired argument that comics visualise too much and so prevent readers from exercising their own imaginations ignores the fact that creators rely on the audience’s active participation to interpret and animate what unfolds within and between the panels. In comics, there is nothing without the reader’s imagination.

In another of his critiques John Walsh stated, “It’s cruel but true: illustrations in novels are for children, or those who have trouble keeping up.” Dickens and Carroll might not agree. The slur of subliteracy and mistrust of visual literacy are trotted out again. What disconcerts the literati is that the graphic novelist does not have to resort to copious textual descriptions, but through illustration can convey a concrete visual image directly and clearly to readers. What gives comics their force and their danger is that the images in them are always there, to be looked at as long and as often as the reader chooses, contradicting the notion that comics lend themselves only to speed-reading, and speed-viewing, and so are not conducive to reflection. Their sheer readability means that comics lend themselves to multiple readings.

These and other arguments about comics have been around for decades. In ‘The Art of an Unknown Future’ in The Times Literary Supplement of May 29th 1955, shortly after the government legislation banning horror comics, an uncredited George Mikes reflected on claims by some pundits that “this new form of expression is capable of creating - indeed, has already created - works of lasting merit.” Mikes mentioned John Steinbeck, no less, who wrote in his introduction to The World of Li’l Abner in 1953 that the strip’s American creator Al Capp “may very possibly be the best writer in the world today.” Mikes was less impressed and, while not wholly condemnatory of the form’s corrupting influence, he was convinced that comics created mental laziness and stupidity. He warned, “If the comics are a new kind literary form, they may well be a kind of literature to end literature. It is a kind of literature not to be read, only looked at. The comics may flourish and conquer; but their ultimate victory…may mark the end of the reading habit.” That nightmare 1984 scenario has not transpired and the reading habit now encompasses both literacy and ‘graphicacy’. How ironic that many teachers and librarians, once among the most concerted opponents of comics, have more recently become their advocates as a way to motivate reluctant and challenged readers and to bring dry, complex texts and subjects to life.

Not that there is any risk of comics losing their subversive edge. They may have been banned and burned, censored and convicted, but a major element of them will always be untameable. A strong anarchic streak runs through all six thematic sections of Comics Unmasked exploring violence, society, politics, sexuality, heroes and altered states of mind. Symbolic figures range from the psychopathic puppet Mr Punch who kills the Devil himself, to Judge Dredd, the ultimate nightmare of law-enforcement in a Fascist future, to the Gunpowder Plot’s Guy Fawkes, reincarnated through comics as V for Vendetta, his mask now a global icon adopted by Occupy and other protest groups. Other rebels who flout authority include the dissolute Cockney chancer Ally Sloper, Victorian star of stage, screen and the biggest selling weekly comic of his day, the chaotic casts of The Beano and Viz, or sassy Tank Girl with her half-kangaroo boyfriend. Applying Alejandro Jodorowsky’s advice to ‘Kill superheroes! Tell your own dreams!’, waves of British creators starting with Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have darkened and deepened America’s musclebound franchises. Among other surprising creators on show are: Bob Monkhouse, whose superhero Tornado tussles with penis-shaped aliens (detail above) ; Enid Blyton, who writes an uncomfortably racist fable for children; William Burroughs experimenting way ahead of his time with the medium; Anita Roddick, starring in an ecological Body Shop comic book; and Grayson Perry with his graphic novel about a cross-dressing Tour de France champion driven to murder by his mother’s ghost. Prejudices and injustices, unconventional lifestyles and hallucinatory visions, the erotic, the neurotic and more are being unflinchingly addressed. 


Far from aspiring to compare and equate the medium of comics with literature or art, the British Library’s exhibition sets out to celebrate a unique form of vital expression with qualities all its own, one in constant reinvention and cross-pollination, indefatigable and indefinable. To enhance the printed treasures, also on view are original scripts, sketches and full-scale original artworks, as well as audio clips, videos of visits to creators’ studios, 3D objects and artefacts, expanded extracts from key works readable on iPads, and samples from Britain’s pioneers in interactive webcomics. For the exhibition’s immersive decor, designer Dave McKean has conceived a spiralling pathway of ribbons (above), like synapses, rolls of paper, streams of conscious or an endless comic strip, culminating at the exit on an easel, waiting to be filled. The goals of Comics Unmasked are to stimulate visitors to experience comics and to make comics for themselves. The next revolution starts with you.

Posted: May 18, 2014

A version of this Article originally appeared in The Guardian, Saturday May 3rd 2014.


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Comics Unmasked:
Art & Anarchy in the UK
by Paul Gravett
& John Harris Dunning
(British Library)