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Great British Comics:

Nostalgia Ain't What It Used To Be

On 10 September 2007, BBC 4 will begin screening its three-part series, Comics Britannia, which celebrates the history of British comics from the first appearance of The Dandy to the present day. In the article below Paul Gravett surveys the recent upsurge in interest in British comics and highlights the best of the recent classic comic reprints.

Back in 1975, the headline screamed: "How four in ten adults relax today (including your bank manager)." Panic-merchants The Daily Mail ran this lurid exposé about "countless British adults switching to what might be described as blood-and-thunder ‘tranquillisers’ - comics.

In typical Mail ‘shock-horror’ fashion, reporter James Gibbins raised the alarm that "according to market research figures" grown-ups reading comics had seen "an estimated 100% increase over the last three years." What was their appeal? It seems in those dark days before Thatcher 30 years ago, "the more we sink into the doldrums, the more we reach for comics."

The almost full-page feature ended with Denis Gifford, the foremost British comics historian of the period. His explanation for the "fantastic interest that adults are taking in comics" was simple: "It’s nostalgia, of course. And nostalgia is escape. The comics - the best of them - represent wholesome innocence, a marvelous sense of fun and a pointer to current times perhaps, the triumphant overcoming of all sorts of difficulties."

Early the following year, Denis organised an entirely British comics festival over a weekend in London, Comics 101, gathering some of the greatest names in the profession - Hampson, Baxendale, Bellamy, Embleton - to meet the public and meet each other for the very first time.

Shortly after, something arrived on newsstands and doormats that would change the "wholesome innocence" of British comics forever: the lurid, movie-inspired, over-the-top IPC weekly comic, Action. To some, its fusion of violence and outrage spoiled the "wholesome innocence" of children’s comics; for others, nostalgia belonged in the past and a tougher modernity was long over due. Action‘s topicality and extreme images sparked a media furore and distributor crackdown, but from its ashes arose 2000AD, the same themes transposed into the ‘fantasy’ future of science fiction but as dark and disturbing as ever.

Nostalgia rules again today, as more past treasures from yellowing British comics are being properly reappraised and reprinted, not only by Titan Books, but also by smaller new outfits like Hibernia and Spitfire. It’s about time more of this heritage was recovered in book form. The biggest draw-back for anyone collecting British weekly comics is their anthology nature, giving you only a couple of pages each time of your favourite serial and requiring you to hunt down dozens of issues to read the whole yarn.

Also tapping into the Seventies nostalgia boom is Carlton BooksCommando: The Dirty Dozen, a 784-page doorstop of a book loaded with "the best 12 Commando comic books ever!" Long-serving current editor George Low chooses the stories from the first thousand. the earliest #327, the latest #994, spanning the late Sixties just into the Eighties. No creator credits are given, naturally, apart from Jordi Langaron’s cover. Thanks to Achtung! Commando, Peter Richardson’s polished fanzine and other online resources, some can be identified, like Gordon Livingstone on #974 and José Jorge’s aerial accuracy on #489 and #657. A lot of dense story gets packed into these 63-page ripping yarns, even though there are only around 135 panels in all. The artwork is shown off well here, printed 25% larger and on thick off-white stock.

From the same period comes Carlton’s The Best Of Jackie, which knits together 148 large-format pages of DC Thomson‘s weekly, remembered as "A Girl’s Best Friend". Most of the extracts come from the early Seventies, including, for some reason, virtually the whole issues dated May 10th from 1970, 1975 and 1976. There’s a wealth of Cathy & Claire problem pages, pop idol posters, dodgy fashion ideas ("How to make a necklace from Coke-can ring pulls!") and sure-fire dating tips to get your guy, but not one of those photo-love fumetti, surely a key feature, and only one three-page illustrated strip, without credits but probably drawn in Spain. My Very Own Donny Osmond follows shy, devoted fan Julie whose heart melts when a Donny Osmond lookalike moves in next door. The attraction seems mutual, until he discovers how much she worships the singer and feels he is merely a stand-in for her dream boy. Luckily, when the lad needs to wear black-rimmed glasses, she still fancies him and destroys her pin-up posters to prove it. "I only like Donny now ‘cos he reminds me of you - not the other way round."

Those were the days. In his new reference book, The Ultimate Book Of British Comics (Allison & Busby) journalist Graham Kibble-White takes on the challenge of making sense of seven decades of teetering piles of British comics. Graham chooses to write concise, informal histories of am A-to-Z of 98 different comic titles, from Action to Wow!, highlighting their memorable stars and creators, free gifts and special features.

He mostly ignores their numerous Christmas annuals and Summer Specials as well as the many other pocket-sized Picture Libraries from detectives and romance, apart from the indestructible Commando. He also leaves out the old story papers, although he acknowledges them as the "proud grandparents of Britain’s weekly comics tradition."

There are memories and anecdotes to be enjoyed here, although precious few illustrations and only 16 covers are shown in colour. Today, all but 5 of his 98 choices - Beano, Dandy, Commando, 2000AD and Judge Dredd Megazine - have disappeared. So Graham ends almost every entry on a sad note, as ultimately sales plummet and each title ends up cancelled or, if it’s lucky, there is "Great News Inside!" as it’s absorbed for a while into another, before it too perishes. These mergers did help temporarily because it transferred newsagents orders form one comic to another, boosting the latter’s figures for a while, as they started getting the merged title through their letterbox instead. Like some withering gothic family tree, like The Fall Of The House Of Comics, the more you read, the more gloomy the book becomes, as every new launch is expected to soon lurch into freefall decline.

Some readers will be let down that Graham has chosen not to include Viz because "they weren’t ever intended for kids". Not that this stops him from including Warrior, Deadline, Crisis and Revolver, which in theory were targeting older readers. He also excludes Viz because it did not "grow out of the lineage of children’s publications." True enough but its parodies are rooted in the Beano and Dandy conventions.

Other omissions are surprising: Look & Learn, admittedly a very worthy educational weekly, but unforgettable for Don Lawrence’s ravishing Trigan Empire spreads; and especially Wham!, surely one of the key Sixties weeklies where Leo Baxendale, liberated from DC Thomson, could cut loose creatively. Graham does cover a lot of ground though, including all the titles surrounding these words and even the more obscure casualties like Penny, Jag Wow! and Scream!.

After over 300 pages of this, his single-page conclusion on "British Comics Today" affirms, "This is a book with a sad ending", and that apart from the five great survivors, "British comics today are pretty much dead in the water." "Great News" indeed!

True, British weekly newsstand comics for older kids may be gone, but there are masses for younger kids and, as Comics International readers know, a wealth of US-format comicbooks and graphic novels from Brodie’s Law, Malcolm Magic, Strangehaven, Tozzer, not to mention the plethora of small press and indie publishers.

Graham is right that the steely corporate suits aren’t interested in publishing newsstand comics anymore, but general book publishers, creators and readers are taking more interest in making home-grown products, as are other surprising institutions new to the medium.

One of these is The John Ruskin Foundation, of all places. In 1862 Ruskin’s essay was published about what we now call economics. "Unto This Last" went on to inspire politicians and led to much of the British welfare state after World War II. His basic message was, "There is no wealth but life", and he branded the greedy profits made by corporate exploitation and pollution, not wealth but "filth".

In an inspired move to convey Ruskin’s still urgent ideas to the 21st century, writer Kevin Jackson has updated them as a comic, How To Be Rich!, expertly drawn by Hunt Emerson. Ruskin proves relevant today in such cases as the exploited Third World workers behind big-brand designer trainers, or the lies of fast food and cigarette advertising, and even the National Lottery. Ten thousand copies of this comic are being given away for use in schools, colleges and elsewhere.

I think the old man would definitely have loved the idea.

Posted: September 2, 2007

The original version of this article appeared in 2005 in Comics International, the UK’s leading magazine about comics, graphic novels and manga.


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Article Links

Comics UK
Toon Hound
Look & Learn
Ruskin For All
Trigan Empire
2000 AD
Ruskin For All

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British Comics

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Featured Books

The Ultimate Book Of
British Comics

by Graham Kibble-White

The Dirty Dozen

edited by George Low

Achtung! Commando
edited by
Peter Richardson

The Best Of Jackie

How To Be Rich!
by Kevin Jackson
& Hunt Emerson