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World Comics:

There's A Whole World Out There

A world of comics is converging on Comica 2007, the London International Comics Festival from 20 October to 6 November: African teen romance in 1970s Ivory Coast; Laika, first cosmonaut dog in space; Shooting War exposes Iraq’s frontline in 2011; growing up in post-revolutionary Iran in the animated Persepolis; a unique Asia-Europe comix-lab puts rising stars together with acclaimed graphic novelists from Brussels, Hanoi, Berlin and Delhi; Posy Simmonds, Igort, Misako Rocks, Best New Manga, Observer/Cape Prize, demos, films, docs, performances, music, 24 Hours Comics - and more.

More true confessions of a comics-junkie. As I got hooked on British weeklies and American monthlies from a very early age, going on a "boring" family holiday to Europe meant being deprived of my regular fixes. So, fighting withdrawal symptoms, I would insist on searching the newsstands abroad for any four-colour thrills to read. I was lucky enough to start learning French and German at school, so I could try ploughing into my first copies of Pilote from Paris, Pif from Ostend or Fix und Foxi from Innsbruck.

As for comics in other languages, even if I couldn’t understand a word, the pictures would help. I became fascinated at the variety of choices on European newsstands, not just Mickey, Superman and other U.S. stars, and to my surprise some British ones too, but also loads of locally created titles I had never heard of before. It’s a sign of my fixation that what I remembered best from those vacations were not the marvellous places we visited or the sites we saw, but the comics I bought home with me. Without knowing it, I was having my Anglo-American horizons broadened.

Then friendships via the mail, shops and Marts with fellow collectors and their "fanzines", stencilled and xeroxed labours of love revealing secrets behind the comics, it dawned on me how many of my favourite English-language comics were actually drawn by amazingly talented "foreigners": biards like Jesus Blasco on Steel Claw, Carlos Ezquerra on Judge Dredd, or a horde of macabre masters on Warren’s Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. I was soon swept away by the wave of ornate styles by Filipino draughtsmen that hit DC and Marvel, like Alfredo Alcala’s almost engraved renderings on Conan or Alex Nino’s unmistakeable, warped compositions (back now on the bizarre God the Dyslexic Dog).

An almost life-changing revelation came in 1976: in the local reference library bookshelves I found the brand new World Encyclopedia of Comics, edited by Maurice Horn. This was a huge, heavy hardback, nearly 800 pages long and nearly twenty quid, a landmark A-to-Z survey of characters, artists and writers from all corners of the globe. I couldn’t afford my own copy, and couldn’t borrow it out of the library, so I had to read a little more every time I dropped by. Unlike me, most of my teenage friends at school had given up on comics by then, usually because they got disenchanted with their favourite superhero’s soap opera, or had nothing else to collect after completing that run of Fantastic Four. Or they simply "outgrew" those childish things and preferred girls, football, rock music, movies, instead.

For me, in those days before the World Wide Web, Horn’s one tome was a massive, mind-expanding rush of information. It was also an epiphany: how could anyone ever get bored with comics, when there was a whole world of them out there? Nobody outgrows films or art. I think I realised then that I would never "outgrow" comics, because I knew there are enough comics, past, present and future, about everything, to grow up with and accompany me throughout my entire life.

From its early days, the cinema grew into an international medium, with masterpieces from Europe, Japan, and elsewhere, subtitled or dubbed into English, their directors from Bergman to Kurasawa recognised and respected. Hollywood or Pinewood could never again be the only games in town. Similarly, if you grow tired of plastic, manufactured pop, you can explore a vast variety of music, especially since the profusion of CDs and downloads, like my recent pleasures, Finnish tango and Ukrainian banduras. So, if you can enjoy World Cinema and World Music, why is there resistance to World Comics?

I was in upstate New York on 9/11 and during the aftermath first heard the strange, very insular term, "the outside world", to refer to the source of those acts of terrorism. As if America was somehow not part of the same whole world as the rest of us. A similar inward-looking perspective used to dominate among American comics readers too, but gradually this has been worn away, by Heavy Metal, Raw, Escape and others translating international comics, by the tsunami of manga and manhwa from Japan and Korea, and by the influx of talents, including we Brits, into their pages.

In 1998, Horn updated the World Encyclopedia which sprawled to over 1,000 pages (Chelsea House) and I was chuffed to write a few new British entries. Still, the time is ripe for a new, less encyclopedic, more accessible overview. It’s arrived in The Essential Guide to World Comics (Collins & Brown). Co-authors Tim Pilcher and Brad Brooks crisscross most of the globe on a 320-page whirlwind tour, which leaves them, and no doubt most readers, "flabbergasted at the sheer scope across the planet." Like TV film critics Siskel and Ebert, this guide benefits from Pilcher and Brooks’ dual viewpoint, which strikes a balance between Brad’s faith in comics as art and Tim’s more prosaic view of comics as fun. As they say, "Both views are valid and the truth probably lies inbetween". Almost everywhere they turn, they find that the mass-market mainstream and the more artistic alternatives co-exist and often overlap. In fact, perhaps the most overused word in the book is "cross-pollination", as they observe how interconnected different countries’ comics cultures have become.

They carve up the world into ten chapters of between 20 and 36 pages, charting figures and favourites that made history, sometimes starting from the 19th century, but mainly from the 20th. North America and Britain lead off, followed by Japan, the rest of Southeast Asia, France and Belgium, and the rest of continental Europe. Next come South America, Scandinavia, and Australasia, and finally India, Africa, and the Middle East. They close each chapter with a spread on one ‘World-Class Creator", like Kirby, Baxendale, Hergé or Tezuka, or less well-known geniuses like Uruguay’s Alberto Breccia, Denmark’s Peter Madsen or New Zealand’s Dylan Horrocks. They pack in some great anecdotes, masses of names, titles, facts and figures and rarely seen imagery from lovely crumbling antiquities to obscure small press gems. My one quibble is that, while they offer an index of about 1,000 creators (some cited on the page only in a list), they did not index the vital characters or comic titles, surely more familiar to most readers.

It is still a remarkable achievement, colourful and sharply designed. Of course, no single book can ever contain the entirety of the world’s comics, but maybe the web could. As Dave Gibbons muses in his foreword, "Maybe someday in the future, comics aficionados will have the equivalent of the technology that brings music from around the world to my computer desktop." Already fan-created websites are sprouting with impressive resources, but imagine being able to read online archives or downloads of whole runs of any of the strips shown here, translated into whatever language you need at the touch of button. Whether this happens is probably more a question of when than if. Till then, this Guide is a dream round-the-world ticket.

Posted: October 14, 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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Featured Books

The Essential Guide To
World Comics

by Tim Pilcher
& Brad Brooks

World Encyclopedia
Of Comics

by Maurice Horn