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Margaret Thatcher in British Comics:

Lest We Forget

Lest we forget. A generation of British people has grown to adulthood free from the shadow of Margaret Thatcher, so none of them can remember, and not all of them understand, what she did, what she stood for and what she continues to inspire to this day. Amid the current eulogies and hagiographies (the above American comic book bio from Bluewater Productions came out in July 2010); amid a celebratory party in Traflagar Square and an imminent state funeral; amid the media clampdown and Labour restraint on any outspoken views, prompting stinging commentaries from the likes of Morrissey and Glenda Jackson; amid a miner’s mother’s recollection of her surprise on visiting 10 Downing Street at her coughing son being given a throat sweet by a kindly prime minister; it’s instructive to look back (in anger?) at how comics and comics creators, in particular British ones, took on ‘The Iron Lady’.

Not surprisingly, Britain’s strong tradition of political cartoonists and caricaturists played key roles at the time as jesters and haranguers, from Gerald Scarfe, Steve Bell and many more on inky newsprint to Fluck & Law’s Spitting Image rubberised puppetry on television. They had their effect and played their part, more so perhaps than other media in Britain such as film, theatre, literature, although a diet of single-panel cartoon mockery in our daily papers may not always stir up much outrage, more a momentary chuckle or flash of indignation, and does not necessaarily dig deeper and expose darker truths. Does merely laughing at our leaders really hurt and weaken them, or does it diffuse and de-fuse rather than stoke fury? Does it make them seem idiotic and somehow more bearable to us?

Surprisingly, it was in longer-form comics, of all places, a medium still mainly below the radar, that flashes of some of the most outspoken, audacious and extended criticisms of Thatcher and her policies emerged and engaged with a young readership, reaching teens to students and young adults. Of course, Steve Bell’s weekly Maggie’s Farm comics in Time Out and later City Limits hounded Maggie from 1979 to 1987 (a 1983 example above), and his six-days-a-week If… strips in The Guardian (a and still going strong) were some of the most barbed satire of the day.

Elsewhere, away from the mainstream press, among the other British creators to respond to Thatcherism were more than a few ‘neurotic boy outsiders’, to quote Grant Morrison’s diaristic, part-autobiographical character study, St. Swithin’s Day.  This comic stands as one of Morrison’s most quietly effective and affecting pieces. Even though [spoiler alert] his first-person narrator does not brandish a gun in his assassination attempt, instead pointing an imaginary ‘hand-gun’ made by his fingers and thumb, a symbol for the power of the imagination, disgruntled Members of Parliament raised questions in the House of Commons and The Sun newspaper hammered the comic book under the headline ‘Death To Maggie Book Sparks Tory Uproar’.

St. Swithin’s Day‘s original UK publishers, Trident Comics, cleverly took advantage of this fleeting furore by including the coverage in their marketing, running The Sun‘s shock-horror feature in the pages of the comic itself and producing a promotional T-shirt showing it alongside the most offensive extract. Morrison was perfectly partnered with Paul Grist, whose crisp, naturalistic artwork enhances the story’s understated humanity. It stands up as much more than some sensationalist ‘Kill Maggie’ fantasy. It speaks for the disenchanted and disenfranchised, and for rebellion and change, both personal and political. After running in the first four issues of Trident, this was collected into a one-shot from Trident and a colourised U.S. version from Oni Press in 1998. Cheap copies are out there.

Mrs Thatcher would resurface recurrently in Morrison’s oeuvre. She is clearly the model for Gloria Munday (above), the villainous coiffured matriarchal prime minister in his revisionist take on Frank Hampson’s Dan Dare. The ‘Pilot of the Future’ was the most upright of British heroes in Eagle starting in 1950, originally envisaged as a Chaplain in Space complete with dog collar. Dare could not be more establishment and conservative with a small ‘c’, but under Morrison and Rian Hughes’ revamp in Revolver in 1990, he had to face up to a corrupt right-wing government and question his political beliefs.

The spirit of Thatcher also haunted Morrison’s controversial series, The New Adventures of Hitler, of which only two four-page episodes ran in Cut magazine, the whole story subsequently unfolding in Crisis, Fleetway’s unapologetically politicised and radicalising spin-off from 2000AD. The reference is clear in these two panels drawn by Steve Yeowell with colouring and collage by the late Steve Whitaker.  A pre-Nazi painter, Adolf meets the national symbol of John Bull in Liverpool and picks up ideas and inspiration from him. Morrison looks back further to the earlier growth of British imperialism and injustice and relates them not only to Hitler’s Germany but to Thatcher’s Britain. Never compiled, perhaps mired in copyright issues, it deserves a wider audience today.

In the American superhero mainstream more recently, Morrison portrayed The Iron Lady again, this time as a shapely, young metal-armoured superheroine. In Batman Incorporated Vol 1, #3 (2001) drawn by Yanick Paquette, Morrison gets a kind of sly revenge by showing her prostrate and presumably injured if not dead after a battle on the Falkland Islands. A minor character in the sidelines so far, perhaps she will figure again in his Bat-epic.

Looking furtherback again, the mood of the times of Thatcher’s triple election victories and her regime had been brilliantly captured by several other comics creators. Most famously, Alan Moore and David Lloyd projected the contemporary nation into a Fascist near-future Britain in V for Vendetta, initially in Dez Skinn’s Warrior. Moore also included a prediction of Thatcher’s ousting by her own cabinet in Miracleman drawn by John Totleben (above). Moore set up his own press, Mad Love, and self-published in 1988 the 76-page protest anthology AARGH! (Artists Against Rampant Gay Homophobia), to oppose the anti-homosexuality legislation, Clause 28.

Jamie Delano and John Ridgeway pilloried Thatcher and the yuppie classes as demons in Hellblazer #3, ‘Going For It’, with a cover by Dave McKean (above), while Pat Mills and Hunt Emerson clearly enjoyed their lampooning of Thatcher in the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’-style ‘dole-playing’ graphic novel, You Are Maggie Thatcher (below).

Less well known is Eddie Campbell’s atypical foray into political satire in 1986. With Thatcher’s ‘election hat-trick’ looming, he created The Incredible Unbelievable Journey, a newspaper-strip style comedy serial, recycling the premise of the movie Fantastic Voyage to shrink Professor Bean and a Sigourney Weaver-type tough woman named Suzy and send them on an expedition into the Prime Minister’s brain to bring back her conscience. When they finally lure it from its high-walled pen, à la King Kong, her conscience is “a pathetic little creature… subnormal even by monkey standards.” This strip eventually saw print in 1987 in Escape Magazine #10. Some years later, Eddie re-cut and ran it in #43 of his Bacchus comic book.

‘The Incredible Unvelievable Journey’ by Eddie Campbell
Click images to enlarge. © Eddie Campbell

It would be interesting to discover other, lesser known interpretations of Mrs. T in British comics. Were there anarchist fanzine strips about her? Anti-Poll Tax comics? Miners’ Strike comics? She made several cameos in North American comics too, most notably Canada’s Dave Sim who introduced her as the fervent ‘Cirinist’ believer and enemy of art and freedom in a piece of perfect casting for the denouement of ‘Jaka’s Story’ in Cerebus.

There remains one other starring role of Mrs. T. in comics that truly stands out. Raymond Briggs in 1984 created The Tin-Pot Foreign General and The Old Iron Woman, one of the most damning and moving anti-war graphic essays of the period, born of his anger at the terrible loss of lives in the Falkslands War and the government’s callous cover-up of the injuries and deaths of British troops.

This brilliant piece may look like a children’s picture book, with typeset narration between single images, often across spreads, but it is hard-hitting and heartfelt. Briggs makes his point by contrasting the exaggerated puppet-show battle between the two leaders of Britain and Argentina - monstrous egos in strident colours, in manic caricatures resembling Gerald Scarfe or Ralph Steadman at their strongest, clad in fantastical iron-plated armour (original art above) - with the utterly heart-rending simplicity and sensitivity of his grey pencilled portrayals of soldiers in combat injured and dying, of their dead bodies returned in a big container, of the war-wounded on crutches and in wheelchairs being excluded from the patriotic pomp and spin.

His narration also becomes very simple, direct and plain, with none of the storybook phrasing of the opening section. This powerful book was reprinted in an out-of-print Briggs compendium and in The Mammoth Book of Best War Comics, edited by David Kendall in 2007, albeit in black and white, which is easier to find. Unfortunately, this manages to omit one particularly arresting pencil drawing, shown below, and captioned succinctly: ‘Some men were burned alive.’ What Briggs expresses in this book is as meaningful and anger-making today as it was then. Read it and remember it.

Posted: April 14, 2013


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

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

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St. Swithin’s Day


You Are Maggie Thatcher

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The Tin-Pot Foreign General

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