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Great British Comics Now:

21st Century Comics

In 1990, I curated an exhibition entitled God Save The Comics! at the Angouléme International Comics Festival, one of the launch exhibits at the brand new Centre National de la Bande Dessinée et de l’Image opened by Culture Minister Jack Lang. Twenty-one years later, I am delighted to report that British comics are enjoying rude health and vital diversity in this second decade of the 21st century, despite some rumours to the contrary and some misperceptions about the medium’s current state and status. These confusions partly arise from UK’s peculiar position of being geographically closer to continental Europe but being culturally, certainly in terms of comics, far closer to the USA.

Britain and America’s special comics relationship goes back a long way. Once our World War Two’s import embargoes were lifted in the late Fifties, bundles of random, unsold American comic books tied up with string would be used as ballast in the holds of cargo ships crossing the Atlantic. Washing up like exotic artefacts into British newsagents, they would be stuffed into the bottom rungs of revolving spinner racks. Many readers of British comics like myself might first discover American comics via their black-and-white reprints but once they discovered the original, genuine article all in colour, there was no going back. No wonder comic fans in Britain became predominantly fans of American comic books and for so many their ultimate ambition is nothing more than to write or draw their favourite American characters.

A long-haired Londoner named Barry Smith paved the way by flying to New York in 196? with little money but big dreams of drawing the Marvel heroes he idolised and had drawn as pin-ups on the back covers of British reprint weekly Fantastic. An illegal alien, resorting to sleeping on a park bench in Manhattan, Smith persisted and final landed assignments on The Avengers, X-Men, Daredevil and ultimately Conan the Barbarian. In this latter case, it helped that Smith was so eager, that he accepted a cheaper page rate, because Marvel also had to pay for the license to adapt Robert E. Howard’s pulp hero. Steve Parkhouse and Paul Neary also broke through around this time. This trio would form the vanguard of a full-scale British invasion in the Eighties, when DC headhunted Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland and then Alan Moore from British comics 2000AD and Warrior. Ever since, working for the Almighty Dollar has enabled many British creators to make their living, especially when local opportunities ran thin after the early Nineties slump and the collapse of publisher Robert Maxwell’s Fleetway enterprise.

Time Out #626 (1982), Amazing Heroes #52 (1984)

So you’d be forgiven for knowing British creators mainly, perhaps exclusively, from their more familiar and often hugely innovative and successful American output, to which they tend to bring a certain anarchic spirit and an outsider’s fresh perspective. It’s arguable that although comics like Hellblazer, Scarlet Traces or League of Extraordinary Gentlemen are published in America, they are essentially British comics through and through. It’s hard to imagine, for example, how American readers could possibly relate to something as quirky and rooted in British-Asian life as Vimanarama by Grant Morrison and Philip Bond. Following Neil Gaiman, James Robinson, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan, Mark Millar, Garth Ennis and Warren Ellis, this transatlantic love affair continues to this day, with a continuing emphasis on recruiting still more UK scriptwriters like David Hine, Kieron Gillen, Tony Lee, Nick Spencer, Paul Cornell, Andy Diggle, Dan Abnett and Anthony Johnston. For these and plenty of gifted artsts too, such as Dougie Braithwaite, Frank Quitely, Sean Phillips and Frazer Irving, it’s a living, and even if you often have to play with somebody else’s toys, you can make your mark with them, perpetuate these properties and maybe share in some royalties. Several of these, and others like Mark Buckingham, Andi Watson, Warren Pleece, Simon Gane and Jamie McKelvie, have worked on creations of their own, for example at DC Vertigo, Marvel’s Icon, Oni, Slave Labor or elsewhere, and been lucky enough to benefit from some welcome creator’s rights too.

The Comics Journal #122 (1988)

The presence of Brits in American comics is undeniable and substantial, but all this is not to suggest that today there are no homegrown comics Made in Britain. Far from it. Our own publishing landscape, in bookshops, comic shops, newsagents and online, is excitingly varied. Opportunities abound, from long-established veterans to brand new players, from large enterprises to small but feisty outfits, from general periodical and literary houses to graphic novel specialists, from children’s to adult lists.

If we start by checking out the shelves of the nation’s newsstands, while the scale and sales of comics may be only a shadow of their peaks in the past, when Eagle could sell nearly a million copies and The Beano topped two million, there’s still quality out there. From Dundee, Scotland, D.C. Thomson’s funny weeklies The Dandy and The Beano, both over 70 now, still survive and thrive. This year, Dandy was revamped from a slick, mosty comics-free fortnightly magazine back to its proper roots as a weekly comic, reviving stories starring comedy celebrities and TV and film parodies and welcoming a host of new cartoonists working outside the usual house styles. Other kids’ titles tend to be licensed tie-ins but even among all these, with their free gift toys taped to the covers, there are top-class strips, such as John Ross’s animation-style Doctor Who Adventures (BBC) or Lorna Miller’s wacky Moshi Monsters (SkyJack), currently the UK’s best selling kids’ mag with comics inside.

In sadder news, the credit crunch brought to a premature halt The DFC (or The David Fickling Comic, named after its effervescent, bow-tied publisher) in May 2010, less than a year after its much-trumpeted, subscription-only launch and before it could be marketed fully onto the newsstands. The good news is that The DFC unearthed and nurtured an impressive roster of new all-ages creators, many of whose series are now being collected into handsome hardcover French-style albums now published by David Fickling Books. In the mythic, mesmerising MezoLith, for example, performance-storyteller Ben Haggarty and movie-designer Adam Brockbank co-produced one of the finest all-ages fantasies in all of modern comics. And the other good news is that The DFC‘s bright young editor Ben Sharpe has secured funding for three years to helm a new children’s weekly, aptly called The Phoenix, to soar from the ashes on January 7th 2012. Over and over, it’s been proved that while game-playing, web-surfing kids may not have been raised on comics, once they are shown them, they love them enormously. From once being chastised for encouraging illiteracy, immorality and even poor eyesight in young readers, comics have been championed by The Reading Agency, The Book Trust, even The School Librarians’ Association, as effective tools to motivate reluctant readers. 

Meantime, while the rest of us are living in 2011, oddly the science fiction weekly 2000AD, home to techno-cop Judge Dredd, has never changed its name. After being bought by games developer Rebellion, there had been some talk of updating it perhaps to 3000AD, but the title has become such a fan-favourite brand, the idea was dropped. Quite how a ten-year-old kid reacts to seeing a futuristic comic coming from a year before they were even born is another matter. It’s worth remembering that when 2000AD was conceived in 1977, IPC could not envisage any of their dwindling titles enduring for more than a few years. Editor Matt Smith balances the zarjaz thrillpower of Dredd, Slaine, even reviving dinosaur rampage Flesh by Pat Mills and James McKay, with scrotnig new series like Greysuit by Mills and John Higgins, Dandridge by Alec Worley and Warren Pleece, or Stickleback by Ian Edginton and D’Israeli. There is also the monthly Judge Dredd Megazine and for older readers the perennially rude, lewd and crude Viz and, new this year, Mark Millar‘s Clint, inserting at least a bit of new homegrown content among its imported serials. Comics also crop up in other magazines, such as Hunt Emerson‘s Firkin the Cat, still in Fiesta, or Phenomenomix in Fortean Times. There are also glossy magazines about comics, ranging from the predominantly superhero-fixated Comic Heroes and manga/anime monthly NEO Magazine to Joel Meadow’s entertainingly eclectic review of comics and related pop culture in Tripwire.

What is missing from today’s newsstands is anything for older readers that is as alternative, progressive, even provocative, as Crisis (1988-91), Deadline (1988-1995), or before them Escape (1983-1989) for example, much-missed magazines that helped to shape their generations. This dearth is partly explained by the diabolical demands on publishers to pay hefty upfront fees to the dominant distributor and retailer WHSmith simply to stock their periodicals on a high-risk ‘sale or return’ basis. Even more money is needed for prominent display or front-of-store promotion. Compare this to France, for example, where NMPP guarantees nationwide distribution for everyone, provided you print enough copies and your magazine is not obscene or illegal. Luckily, innovation can flourish elsewhere through the network of comic shops, whether chains like Forbidden Planet, Forbidden Planet International and Travelling Man or one-offs like Gosh! in London, Plan B in Glasgow, Dave’s Comics in Brighton and Page 45 in Nottingham, which sell items via Diamond Distributors UK on a firm-sale, no-returns basis, magic to any publisher’s ears.

In addition, the boom in conventions, festivals and fairs has encouraged a real resurgence in independent and self-published comics. In the past there might be only one major comics convention a year and its focus was on American mainstream comics. As the UK’s underground scene evolved in the Seventies, Hunt Emerson and other rallied their fellow artists to the first K.A.K. or Konvention of Alternative Komics at London’s Air Gallery in 1977. From the early Eighties, Fast Fiction‘s distro-service, sales stall at London Comic Marts, and pre-internet social networking were integral parts of the period’s post-punk and new-wave spirit and the wider Do-It-Yourself photocopied fanzine culture. Over time, other vehicles and venues have taken on these cohesive roles, like Scenes from the Inside, Zum!, Inkling, Slab-o’-Concrete, Smallzone, and weathering it all Caption in Oxford, probably the smallest but also the longest-running comic convention in the UK, devoted solely to the makers and readers of small press comics. These days, comic conventions pop up all over the country, from Hi-Ex in Inverness, Scotland and Thought Bubble in Leeds, via regulars in Birmingham and Bristol, to all-new events started this year in Cardiff, Wales, in Exeter, Devon and in London with the ambitious Kapow! Convention and the International Alternative Press Festival.

As a new model, back in 2003, I developed the Comica Festival initally with John Dunning, at the time film publicity man and comics enthusiast at London’s trendy multi-media ICA or Institute of Contemporary Arts. We wanted to emphasise the independent and international, reclaiming the true diversity of graphic novels for adults, and connecting their multidisciplinarity with as many other artforms and subjects as possible. Support from the ICA, Arts Council, sponsors, publishers, cultural departments and other European festivals has enabled renowned guests to grace Comica, and bringing novelists and graphic novelists together for enlightening conversations, like Ian McEwan with Posy Simmonds, Michel Faber and Guy Delisle, Toby Litt with Adrian Tomine, and Philip Pullman with Art Spiegelman.

Zadie Smith, Nick Hornby, Mark Haddon are among the esteemed authors who have wholly embraced the graphic novel in reviews and interviews; Zadie Smith commissioned Daniel Clowes and Chris Ware to craft new short stores for her compendium, The Book of Other People. In 2005, The Royal Society of Literature no less inducted Raymond Briggs and Posy Simmonds into their illustrious ranks, the only writers to employ pictures, at least since William Makepeace Thackeray (1811-63), an admirer and emulator of Rodolphe Töpffer. Attending the first Summer University in Angoulême in 2007, I was surprised at how the French, with all the riches of their 9th Art, were envious of this sort of high-profile recognition, apparently something largely unheard of among France’s snobbish literary elite.

One after the other, there are more and more tipping points as the medium expands in scope and doors are opening to comics in the most unexpected of institutions. So in 2010, the Arts Foundation awarded its first graphic novelist fellowship and the London International Book Fair began its Comics Pavilion and parallel programme of panels. Also last year, Tate Britain finally placed comic art on its gallery walls in Rude Britannia, while the School of Advanced Study at the University of London’s Institute of English Studies laid on the world’s first conference on comics and medicine, organised by Ian Williams, ex-doctor now autobiographical comics creator under the pen-name Thom Ferrier. In August 2011, the Imperial War Museum in London hosted their first serious event devoted to graphic novels, Comics & Conflicts, and this November the renowned Henry Moore Institute in Leeds will hold a conference on comics and sculpture, again as far as I know, the first of its kind in the world.

For anyone wanting to learn how to make comics, in 2008 Glyndwr University in North Wales introduced the first Bachelor of Arts degree in graphic novel illustration, while the Arvon Foundation offers intensive week-long residential courses and even Prince Charles’ Drawing School provides comics classes. As for studying the medium itself, British academia boasts not one but three peer-reviewed journals: European Comic Art (Liverpool University Press, now Berghahn), Studies In Comics (Intellect) and Journal Of Graphic Novels & Comics (Routledge) and this autumn the University of Dundee begins the first one-year Masters degree in comics. It’s becoming clear that comics, as stories, as images with or without texts, can relate to and interact with anything you can imagine.

Currently, rather than superheroes, newcomers are as likely to have come to comics via the works of Chris Ware, Daniel Clowes or Marjane Satrapi or via bandes dessinées and manga, or illustration, print-making, painting, film-making, creative writing. Esteemed literary publishers, led by Jonathan Cape, part of Random House, have made a huge difference. Cape’s established authors proved that graphic novels could sell, notably Raymond BriggsEthel & Ernest and Posy SimmondsGemma Bovery, as did imported hits like Ghost World, Jimmy Corrigan, Persepolis. A vital advance came with their taking on Alice In Sunderland by Bryan Talbot, a multi-layered masterpiece by a pioneer of the form. Its crossover success led to Cape’s commitment to Talbot’s next projects, his extravagant steampunk romp Grandville starring tough badger Inspector LeBrock of Scotland Yard, of which he is hard at work on the third volume, and Dotter Of Her Father’s Eyes, a close collaboration with his wife Mary Talbot, partly autobiographical about Mary’s relationship with her father, the Joycean scholar James S. Atherton, and partly biographical, contrasting the life of James Joyce’s daughter Lucia. It will be published February 2nd 2012 on Joyce’s 130th birthday.

Crucially, Cape have not relied solely on proven practitioners but have sought out untried talents by teaming with Comica and The Observer newspaper to run an annual Graphic Short Story Prize, now in its fifth year, stimulating hundreds to try their hand at comics. Winners, finalists and discoveries have gone on to have their promising debuts published, including William Goldsmith‘s Vignettes From Ystov, Julian Hanshaw‘s Art Of Pho and John Broadley‘s utterly eccentric Book Of Books. Publisher Dan Franklin and editor Alex Bowler have championed some remarkable works such as David Hughes’ expansive Walking The Dog, Nick Hayes’ eco-fable Rhyme Of The Modern Mariner, as well as Simone Lia‘s poetic Fluffy and Hannah Berry‘s quirky noir Britten & Brülightly. The good news is that both of these women have their next projects already underway.

Other publishers big and small, specialist and general, may play it more safe at first, relying on adaptations of the classics or works by established writers, or franchises or buy-ins from abroad, but gradually some are providing more opportunities for British creators to devise their own projects. So Walker have originated Andi Watson‘s Glister, John Dunning and Nikhil Singh‘s Salem Brownstone and David Almond and Dave McKean‘s The Savage and Slog’s Dad, while Templar unveil Paul Collicutt‘s retro-SF Robot City series. In 2007 upstarts SelfMadeHero scored a success by adapting Shakespeare into manga, drawn by a new generation of British or British-based artists who had grown up on manga and anime. From there, Emma Hayley and Doug Wallace have added other adaptations of classics while branching out into biographies, commissioning life stories of gonzo journalist Hunter Thompson and hellraising actors Richard Burton, Oliver Reed, Peter O’Toole, as well as completely original graphic fiction in Kate Brown‘s Fish + Chocolate and Glynn Dillon‘s The Nao Of Brown.

The first release from Blank Slate Books in May 2008 was the travel diary Trains Are… Mint by Oliver East, which I hailed as “A unique use of comics, almost a time capsule of the unrecorded, everyday provinces.” Alongside Euro-translations, mainly from Germany, they are sourcing British books from small press and online creators. Particularly successful was Darryl Cunningham‘s Psychiatric Tales, accounts of his experiences as a mental health nurse, originally created as webcomics. Widely praised, this year it was published in the States by Bloomsbury and a sequel volume is due. Kenny Penman and Isobel Rips have taken to originating more projects. This year’s Nelson (nothing to do with the admiral or his column) is an inspired way to make a cohesive 260-page anthology of short stories by having over fifty contributors tell a tale from a different year in the titular character’s life. Their new line Chalk Marks, explicitly patterned on Igort’s Ignatz Collection of dust-jacketed 32-page A4 upmarket comics, is giving rising stars a solo showcase. Sneak peaks I’ve seen of Stuart Kolakovic‘s Lichen and Warwick Johnson-Cadwell‘s Gungle for 2012 are mouth-watering.

Something quietly unprecedented is happening in 21st century British comics. Veterans Knockabout Comics have been knocked about a bit over the years in lawsuits with customs, but a book like Brick‘s Depresso: or How I Learned To Stop Worrying & Embrace Being Bonkers proves their continued commitment to uncompromising, searingly personal works. Smaller outfits like Scar Comics, Kult Kreations and Accent UK are generating often first-rate products too numerous to cover properly here, as are anthologies like the newspapers We Are Words & PicturesPaper Science and The Comix Reader, chunky new compilation Ink + Paper, or Tom Humberstone’s considerately crafted Solipsistic Pop, Paper Tiger‘s damning War: The Human Cost, avant-gardist artcomics from Heuberger and Landfill Editions, and the women-led Whores of Mensa, soon to be retitled The Strumpet. While Britain waits for the sort of the Third Wave feminism found in Sweden, Sarah Lightman and Nicola Streeten have set up Laydeez Do Comics, a monthly London meeting and support group to bring women (mainly but not exclusively) together. The gender imbalance is finally being corrected as more women from all backgrounds and interests enrich the form. This September, Streeten’s heartfelt autobiographical memoir of losing her young infant is released by Myriad, whose publisher Corinne Pearlman is building a list of socially engaged comics, while Karrie Fransman‘s surreal pyschodrama The House That Groaned will be her breakthrough opus from Square Peg in early 2012.

No new British comics publisher has had such a swift impact and developed such an identifable brand as Nobrow. They started in 2009 with a self-titled magazine, as in the case of Top Shelf, Drawn & Quarterly or Escape. Nobrow focussed almost entirely on attractive eye-candy, but have gradually found their way to comics. Their emergence from illustration means palette-conscious visual allure can dominate over content, but their 17 x 23 collection (named after its size) is giving many their first platform for a 24-page yarn and, while hit-and-miss, The New Ghost by Rob Hunter is a haunting wonder. Not lacking in ambition, Nobrow have produced A Graphic Cosmogony, asking 24 artists to convey the universe’s creation in their own ways on seven pages. Two exceptional young storytellers cry out for special praise: mature beyond their years, Jon McNaught and Luke Pearson are deepening their skills in their latest stories, Pebble Island and Everything We Miss.

Finally, 2011 marks the return of Escape Books, whose first book The Great Unwashed presents the wry satires of Brighton-based brothers Warren and Gary Pleece, further proof of the climate of possibility in Great British Comics.

I’ll leave the last word to Dave McKean. “There’s a generation that don’t care less about Marvel Comics or The Beano, they’re simply looking at the raw nature of the medium and undestanding that it’s a great way of communicating and getting your ideas across, with no preconceptions at all, it’s a fantastically democratic medium. Others may disagree that culture is led from the top down, but the fact that Jonathan Cape and other publishers are putting together wonderful lines of books, with nothing to do with people’s general preconceptions of what comics are, brilliant books, beautifully told, I think this is what finally pushes it over the finishing line. Now we have real momentum. In this new century, comics seems to be the perfect artform for self-expression.”

Posted: October 9, 2011

This article first appeared in Sarjainfo magazine.


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Comics Art by Paul Gravett from Tate Publishing

1001 Comics  You Must Read Before You Die edited by Paul Gravett

Comics Unmasked by Paul Gravett and John Harris Dunning from The British Library