Cartooning is a global medium, and comic books can be—and have been—used to tell just about any kind of story, from kitchen-sink autobiography to sweeping epic fantasy and everything in between.
It is a curious anomaly that in the United States, as nowhere else, comics are so thoroughly dominated by (in public perception, if not necessarily in sales figures) by a single genre: the superhero story.
Read the last Popdose on the art of the 'Gentry Man.'
But though superheroes have been the prevalent model of American comics for the last half century, their nature has changed. Starting in the 1980s, a stream of British comics writers has transformed U.S. comic books. Alan Moore’s Watchmen was a watershed moment in the deconstruction of the superhero, paving the way for Neil Gaiman’s Sandman, Peter Milligan’s X-Statix, Mark Millar’s Ultimates, and revisionist works from Warren Ellis, Alan Grant, Jamie Delano, Garth Ennis and a host of others—all of whom brought an outsider perspective and sensibility to the genre, and in doing so expanded its parameters
The thematic and stylistic distinctness of UK product, as outlined in James Chapman’s British Comics: A Cultural History, traces back to one of those lovely coincidences of parallel development—where multiple communities, each working in isolation, all arrive at the same destination by different routes. Where mainstream U.S. comics owe much to the lurid pulps that preceded them, the British model grew out of the ha’penny comic papers and “boy’s own” weeklies of the late Victorian era. In the great boom of British comics publishing, after World War II, the predominant genres were social comedy, science fiction, school stories, sports and war—with nary a costumed mystery man in sight.
There was a remarkable difference in tone as well. There was, for a long time, a paternalistic attitude in British mass media. Remember this was still a country where broadcasting was considered above all a public trust—and even comics publishers felt an obligation to educate and enlighten, as well as to entertain. Comics like The Eagle and its lead strip Dan Dare: Pilot of the Future were self-conscious celebrations of the British spirit and liberal values, as well as tightly plotted adventure tales. This high-mindedness is marked contrast to the U.S. crime and horror comics of the same period, the gruesomeness of which sparked a moral panic.
Beginning in the late 1960s, two things happened to change British mass culture in general and British comics in particular. First the BBC monopoly on broadcasting was broken, and the old paternalism began to erode; British media began to adopt the ethos that their American counterparts had long held—Give The People What They Want. And American comics, which had long been scarce across the pond, became readily available in cheap reprint form.
Out of this conflux came a wave of books that beat the Americans at their own game. Titles like Action, Warlord and 2000 AD broke with the staid-and-sober likes of The Eagle to serve up an intoxicating brew of heady ideas and grimy violence, all served up with a peculiarly British blend of wicked cynicism and dark humor. In particular, 2000 AD—which debuted in 1977 under the slogan “Thrill Power!”—served as a training ground for a generation of writers and artists, many of whom would take the swift-moving action and Swiftian satire of properties like Judge Dredd and apply them to American superheroes.
Chapman—a professor of film studies—charts the development of British comics with affection and amusement. There’s a clear sociological tilt to his overview. He gives little attention to the differences in narrative technique that make British product so distinctive, focusing instead on the ways that comic books reflect the audience’s aspirations and anxieties about social mobility, class struggle and national identity. Although some of this material is well-remembered and regarded—Dan Dare, in particular, is often held up alongside Prince Valiant for an example of comics as fine art—Chapman has done a great service by publicizing much that has been near-forgotten. If only some enterprising publisher would repackage some of this material, particularly girls’ stories like School Friend or Tammy, which some regard as the true beginning of the New Wave in British comics.
British Comics: A Cultural History loses some steam in its final quarter, precisely when British comics become, in a sense, a farm system for the American industry and less a vital force in their own right. The comics industry has always been an international affair—indeed, in their 1960s heyday many UK publishers farmed out their art chores to Spanish and Italian cartoonists—but now that the best of today's British comics are easily found throughout the English-speaking world, and top talent may create strips for U.S. and UK publishers simultaneously, it seems that the boundaries have been erased.
American readers have gained much in the crossover of British talent to these shores. But something else, something that still shines forth from the yellowed pages of Bunty or Battle or Roy of the Rovers—some sense of mystery, some quality of cultural distinctness—has been largely lost. And as the world continues to grow smaller, it's hard to see that quality ever coming back.
Jack Feerick, Critic at Large for Popdose, was raised an Anglophile, but nowadays he only goes at Christmas and Easter.