Fwoooosh! That, were someone to write a strip about it, would be the sound of a thousand comic books going up in flames. They used to do that, you know; burn comics. It was mostly in America, in the late 1940s, after these DayGlo fictions, with their monsters and superheroes and suggestive curves, were declared bad for children’s health. But it spread to Britain too. Parents and teachers would search drawers and desks. Any comics they found would be gathered in small piles outside. A responsible adult would pull out some matches. And then, like I said: fwoooosh!
Of course, comics are now treated with greater respect. Whether it’s the deluge of superhero movies or the magnificent awards bestowed upon graphic novels such as Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, this is no longer an ars non grata. It has even got to the point where the British Library is hosting a summer-long exhibition entitled Comics Unmasked. The British Library. Try burning that one down, angry arsonist of Tunbridge Wells.
But the truth is, a little bit of stigma never really hurt comics. In fact, in some ways, it may have helped them along. The catalogue for the British Library exhibition tells the story of a child who was present at one of those book burnings. ‘If people like you are against comics,’ he thought to himself, ‘then I’m definitely for them.’ That child was called Dave Gibbons. When he grew up, he’d draw the art for Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which — as comics people like to point out — was included in TIME magazine’s list of the 100 best novels published since 1923. Some of that art is featured in this exhibition.
As much as anything can be said to typify the varied world of British comics, Gibbons’s can-do-screw-you spirit is it. It’s not without reason that Comics Unmasked borrows from the Sex Pistols for its subtitle: Art and Anarchy in the UK. Much of this artwork would, if it could, put on a pair of Doc Martens and trample all over your parents’ sensibilities. A thalidomide victim axing the boss of a drugs company into mush? Adolf Hitler hallucinating a conversation with John Bull? A strip drawn by Bob Monkhouse in which a superhero battles giant penises? Yes, it’s all here — even the last one.
Ah, Bob Monkhouse’s penises. On second thoughts, they could jar with your own sensibilities, let alone your parents’. But fear not: the subversiveness of British comics takes many forms. Millions will have encountered it, even if they don’t think they have, at a very early age — through dog-eared copies of the Beano. That publication’s most famous character, Dennis the Menace, has been around since 1951. He roughs people up, bristles at authority figures, and has a tuft of spiky hair. He’s basically a proto-punk.
And it goes back even further than that, as the curators of the British Library’s show — John Harris Dunning, Paul Gravett and Adrian Edwards — artfully demonstrate. In a section devoted to the very adult pleasures of sex is an 18th-century print that recollects William Hogarth’s A Harlot’s Progress. Six images, placed in sequence, telling a story. That’s not far removed, if it’s removed at all, from comic books. And the same goes for one of my favourite exhibits: the cover of the early British tabloid The Illustrated Police News from 13 October 1888. Its numerous panels reconstruct, like a pathologist with a pencil, the incidents and injuries of the Jack the Ripper case. Gruesome always did sell well.
There does seem to be something particularly British about all this. The proof lies in what happened when Brits started colonising the American comic-book industry from the 1980s onwards. The superheroes they drew for Marvel and DC weren’t always square-jawed and straightforward. They were skewed, confused and, in some cases, downright mad. I’ve already mentioned Alan Moore’s Watchmen, which is the standard measure for superhero subversion. But there are plenty of other examples, from Grant Morrison’s corkscrew run on Animal Man to Warren Ellis’s Planetary to (Spectator subscriber) Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass. These writers grabbed an American archetype by the cape, and then went about kicking it into demented new shapes.
This is a martial art that they learnt in Blighty. For years, in home-grown periodicals such as Toxic and 2000 AD, British writers and artists have been making antiheroes out of superheroes. Judge Dredd, the fascist future-cop whom we love to love, is probably the most well known. Yet for straight-up outrageousness it’s hard to beat Pat Mills’s Marshal Law, or his and Tony Skinner’s Accident Man. The latter, if you haven’t already rushed to buy the recent hardback collection, is a little like James Bond. Except this Bond kills people in ways that look accidental. And it gives him a terrible, ambiguous sort of thrill.
But why? Why are so many British comics like this? The answer is probably tied up in a thousand years of history and culture. It could be the influence of outlaw heroes such as Robin Hood and Dick Turpin. It could be our Enlightenment tolerance of dissent. It could be, as one writer suggested to me, that the death of the British empire has made us irreparably cynical. Take your pick. It’s probably all of these things and more.
And, even then, the rabbit hole may go deeper still. The most revelatory section of the British Library’s exhibition is the one devoted to magic. There, like a comic-book panel itself, is the original painting for one of Aleister Crowley’s tarot cards — the same tarot card that appears in Grant Morrison and Dave McKean’s Batman story Arkham Asylum. That devilish old occultist is an influence on quite a number of comic-book creators. Some of them practise magic themselves, or so they claim, and try to squeeze it into the margins of their books. For them, comics are ley lines in print form. The arrangement of pictures and words can frazzle readers’ brains into new ways of thinking.
So, altogether now: abracadaver! A recent issue of 2000 AD, I noticed, contained a picture of the Queen and Prince Philip as naked, preserved corpses. Darkly funny? Shocking for shocking’s sake? Utterly profane? Whatever your position, it’s worth noting that this punkish, ambitious art form isn’t restricted to galleries and museums. It’s one you can buy into for £2.45 an issue.
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