GREAT BRITISH COMICS
A Review By: Michel Faber
Michel Faber has been collecting, drawing, reading and thinking about comics for forty years or more. He is also the critically acclaimed author of Under The Skin (2000), The Hundred And Ninety-Nine Steps (2001), The Courage Consort (2002) and The Crimson Petal And The White (2002). Additionally, he has written three short story collections: Some Rain Must Fall (1998), The Fahrenheit Twins (2005) and The Apple (2006). The following review appeared in The Guardian on 25 November 2006.
Book Of The Week: A Tardis Of Delights.
Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury’s Great British Comics is an entertaining celebration of the medium.
Of all the canny decisions that went into the making of this book, its choice of cover is the most perfect. Korky the Cat winks mischievously, promising us more of the tomboy misbehaviour that’s been the mainstay of British comics since the late 19th century. In Britain, comics were always regarded as lowbrow fun for children, no more exalted than crisps or sweeties. Compare Korky with the US’s Krazy Kat - a wry, linguistically sophisticated newspaper strip adored by serious critics from the 1920s onwards - and the two countries’ different relationship with the artform is obvious. Note also that the Dandy created Korky at the same time as America spawned the superhero. British publishers always did prefer hi-jinks to drama, with far-reaching consequences: even the most visible of our modern “adult” comics - Viz - is a potty-mouthed spoof of the Beano.
Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury are well aware of the limitations and missed opportunities that have contributed to the comparative low esteem in which British comics are held. However, their purpose in compiling this book is not to apologise but to celebrate. And there is much to celebrate: more than a hundred years’ worth of “ripping yarns and wizard wheezes”. Wisely, they’ve chosen not to produce a coffee-table tome featuring a few dozen full-size reproductions of front covers and a smattering of text. Instead, Great British Comics is madly compendious. A scholarly history is traced in eight substantial chapters, each exploring the evolution of the medium through a different lens: class relations in “For Richer, For Poorer”, femininity in “Jolly Hockey Sticks To Sheroes”, and so on. Given the density of data - a jostling succession of titles, characters, writers, artists, publishers and trends - Gravett and Stanbury do a remarkable job in keeping the text lucid and entertaining. Their observations are backed up with hundreds of comic story pages. How do they fit them all into a 191-page paperback? By shrinking them down to a quarter, a sixth, even a twelfth of their original size. Excellent design and pin-sharp printing reduce the eyestrain, but I suspect that most readers over 30 will need a magnifying glass to decipher the minuscule contents of the word balloons. This is not a book to be idly flipped through, it’s an engrossing adventure, a Tardis of delights.
The fun begins with Fun, a lower-class tuppenny alternative to Punch, launched in 1861. Gradually, as more comics came on to a hungry market, intricate Victorian engravings and wordy subtitles gave way to simpler, cleaner lines and more dynamic storytelling. Censorious educators and middle-class parents were aghast at the nation’s youth spurning The Iliad for Illustrated Chips, but kids knew what they liked, and their cheap thrills were soon big business. In a snapshot from 1943, a throng of children queue outside the newsagents waiting for their fix; one lucky boy is already reading the Nazi-beating exploits of Rockfist Rogan, RAF. A 1955 photo shows crowds of kids at the seaside excitedly waving the latest copies of Eagle and Girl.
One of the main attractions was a vision of a brighter, cheerier, more hedonistic world than chilly reality offered. The authors note that “Dan [Dare]‘s first urgent mission took him to Venus in search of the right conditions to grow food for a starving, overpopulated Earth. This scenario would have struck a chord with British readers who had to put up with rationing that was even stricter than during the second world war right up to 1954.” Several of the pages reproduced in the book illustrate the peculiarly British obsession with “the slap-up feed” which provided the climax of so many comic stories - a gross fantasy of “jelly and ice-cream, buns and cakes, towers of mashed potato with sausages sticking out”.
In America, the function of comics was often to subvert the cushioned comforts of normalcy, suggesting dark undercurrents beneath the American dream or psychedelic visions outside of it. British comics largely strove to be harmless and family-friendly. It’s almost unbelievable that until 1969 Amalgamated Press, one of the UK’s largest comics publishers, forbade drawings of snakes in case young readers might be frightened. (Even when the ban was relaxed by new owners IPC, their first snake - on the cover of Whizzer and Chips - was not a killer but a pet.) Britain was happy to reprint American funnies, but the importation of horror comics was controversial. The Sunday Dispatch on February 13 1949 thundered: “Horror has crept into the British nursery. Morals of little girls in plaits and boys with marbles bulging in their pockets are being corrupted by a torrent of indecent coloured magazines that are flooding bookstalls and newsagents.”
In the arena of sex, however, British mainstream comics were often more daring than their American equivalents. The morning after D-Day, British soldiers were given a morale boost by the Daily Mirror’s cartoon glamour girl, Jane, taking the phrase “comic strip” literally. Thenceforth, Jane’s undressed body (“Give me a break, I can’t find my panties!”) was a British icon, a pen-and-ink precursor of the Page 3 girl. An American syndicate agreed to take her on, but artist Norman Pett was obliged to scribble clothing over her naked bits and even to censor her suspenders. The nudity that would later spice up such strips as Garth, Modesty Blaise and Tiffany Jones remained, in America, a strictly underground phenomenon.
Today’s state of play is more complicated. While the main preoccupation of our most popular comics is still arguably what a Yankee visitor in a Posy Simmonds strip calls “toilet yumor”, the US’s post-South Park culture is now so infantilised that the likes of Johnny Fartpants no longer seem so peculiarly British. As for the serious side of things, many of the most exciting, dependably inventive of “American” comics creators are in fact Brits lured overseas by greater opportunities, money and status. Great British Comics displays pioneering work by Alan Moore, Brian Bolland, Grant Morrison and a host of current luminaries. It even includes a page from Bryan Talbot’s Alice In Sunderland, not due for publication until next year.
Which brings us to the biggest strength of this book: the depth and breadth of its scope. Previous historical studies have tended to argue that there was a golden age of comics which coincided conveniently with the authors’ own childhoods. Gravett and Stanbury emphasise the medium’s ongoing vitality. Sure, they pay enthusiastic homage to Rupert, Desperate Dan and all the rest, but they’re equally evangelistic about 2000AD, the graphic novel explosion of the 1990s, and whatever is fresh on today’s drawing boards.
Of course there are limits to how much warrants praise in a country whose comics publishers have always, as the authors concede, “avoided change for as long as possible”. If Gravett and Stanbury are aware - and, as connoisseurs, they must be - that some of the UK’s best-loved strips are creaking hack-work, they’re too diplomatic to say so. Indeed, they keep criticism to a minimum, relying on plentiful documentary evidence to induce nostalgia, embarrassment, hilarity, awe and disdain according to the beholder’s own tastes. They’re mindful that “any character, no matter how obscure or undistinguished, can become somebody’s all-time favourite if they read it at the right time and in the right circumstances”. In other words, dear reader, while you may have a sound rationale for preferring one Whitbread-nominated novel to another, or for judging the efforts of Danielle Steel or Dan Brown to be trash, you may be forever gripped by the daft conviction that Roger the Dodger was witty or that Circus Ballerina had tragic pathos.
If there’s one thing that this book makes wonderfully clear, it’s that British comics, like comics elsewhere, are a dazzlingly complex universe, encompassing the whole range of literary and artistic endeavour, from mindless babysitting to metaphysical meditation, with plenty of dystopian satire, high-octane heroics and luscious aesthetics along the way. The final panel of my review is approaching, so I’ll leave you with just two titbits: Orwell’s Animal Farm was turned into a 78-episode anti-communist propaganda comic - drawn by the same artist who was so adept at separating Jane from her clothes. Further on, in a feminist cartoon from the 1990s, Beryl the Bitch disses a useless male as he boozes in front of the telly - with a Beano at his side. Great British Comics is chock-full of juxtapositions like that: the classic and the kitsch; soothing nostalgia and its acerbic discontents.