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British Comics

A Cultural History


 James Chapman


London: Reaktion Books, 2011

Hardback. 303 p. 71 illustrations. ISBN 978-1-86189-855-5. £25 / 30,17€


 Reviewed by Trevor Harris

Université François-Rabelais, Tours




This is cultural history in its mode of “history from below”, the history of the non-elite, investigating the ordinary, the quotidian. But these are precisely the aspects of our history for which we can develop the strongest attachment and, with the passage of time, for which we often feel the strongest pangs of nostalgia. A good few British people born during the 1940s and 1950s may have memories from their schooldays of feverishly attempting to finish a page from the latest DC comic—bought, borrowed or begged—hunched under the flap of their school desk, as the teacher approached along the corridor to begin the next class. Many will also have had at least a passing acquaintance with the homely, quirky merits of Minnie the Minx, the Bash Street Kids, Roy of the Rovers, or Dan Dare and his faithful Digby... The argument being advanced here by James Chapman is that British comics, from their origins in the late-Victorian period and up to the present, are an integral part of Britain’s twentieth-century heritage and “a valuable but neglected source of social history” [12].

This is therefore an account which necessarily encourages many of its readers in the direction of reminiscence, as the dust jacket of the book freely admits: “We are all nostalgic about comics”. Although that is probably an exaggeration, there is none the less a certain inevitable tension here, from the outset, between the writing of the history and the evocation of the memory. The author underlines that “comics scholarship is still in its infancy” [289] and that the significance of the medium has generally only been championed by fans and enthusiasts. That the area remains largely undocumented is emphasised by the fact that Chapman does not provide a bibliography, but instead a short section on “sources”. He is, however, at pains to document his own study fully, as is clear from the thirty pages of references at the end of the book.

Developing an accurate explanation as to why comics have not yet found their place in the social and cultural history of Britain is difficult. Chapman himself points out that bandes dessinées in France (and elsewhere) occupy a position of some cultural prominence and importance. So why not in Britain? Is it that such manifestations of continental radical chic cut no ice with a residual British moralism, such facile, frivolous enjoyment being in some way suspect, possibly showing insufficient evidence of aesthetic hard graft, the devil—as usual—making work for idle hands? Or is there a more superior, class-based disdain at work here, eschewing the overtly popular, and which sees “comics” as yet another part of the irreversible tide of dumbing-down, a vulgar, tabloid sop to the patently un-well-read: panem et circenses?

Given Chapman’s own account, it does seem a bit difficult to avoid the conclusion that the comic is, more often than not, a rather silly, shallow medium... As he shows, “comics” really emerged in the late-Victorian period, into a society and, more particularly, into a publishing industry which had clearly taken on board the commercial possibilities afforded by the spread of literacy and the increasing availability of cheaper production / distribution methods. Comics were aimed at a working-class / lower middle-class readership and were generally conservative in outlook, peddling, for example, numerous racial stereotypes. Initially the readership, Chapman points out, was essentially an adult one. By the inter-war years, a wide range of titles was being produced, many of them now catering specifically for children, and in which the story had given way to the picture strip. A few titles aimed at adults clung on. One of the most notable survivals of comic strips for adults was the tales of “Jane”, which continued to be printed into the 1930s in the Daily Mirror (which then had a circulation of over two million). This rather risqué or “racy” chronicle of the unlikely scrapes the pretty young blond got herself into—adventures which usually entailed Jane losing most of her clothes—show that there is little new under the sun, or rather The Sun, whose “page three girl” continues the essence of this dubious tradition. The comics industry continued to expand, but was soon to be tested by the Second World War, with its paper shortages and its virtual ban on the launch of new titles.

One important point that Chapman makes about these first children’s comics is that they relied on what would today be seen as highly “gendered” content, drawn and written by a predominantly male staff—although the readership itself was perhaps not quite as gendered as one might have assumed: many young girls often read boys’ comics. Indeed, as Chapman explains in detail in chapter four, some comics were clearly conceived as “unisex” [108], such as Dandy or The Beano. And the decision to launch a sister paper, Girl, to the much loved Eagle, was dictated, according to Chapman, more by commercial factors than anything to do with gender. More titles aimed solely at girls were to follow: Bunty (1958) and others, later, which were to prove more radical in their content (for example Tammy, from 1971).

It was during this twenty-five-year period after the war, then, that comics were to reach their biggest audience. Yet, with the growth in ownership of television sets through the 1950s and 1960s, comics were faced with increasing competition. Programmes specially designed for younger viewers—Crackerjack, Blue Peter, The Adventures of Robin Hood—encouraged the appearance of comics which were, in practice, “spin-offs” from various series. But the comics could never rival television itself or, later, video and computer games. From a high point of 14 million copies per week [76] during the “golden age” of comics (from the mid-1930s to the end of the 1960s), sales gradually fell to 10 million copies per week by the mid-1970s, and then more or less collapsed, reaching roughly 3 million by the mid-1980s: this despite working to enlarge their “cultural and intellectual ambitions” [225].

Chapman also shows very well how the development of the comics industry after the Second World War was affected by a form of conservative moral panic, as well as by a more left-wing rejection (notably by the CPGB) of an American commercial invasion. American comics, it would seem, were both morally and ideologically unsavoury and were held by many to be adversely affecting impressionable young British minds: so much so, in fact, that Parliament passed the Children and Young Person’s (Harmful Publications) Act in 1955. Eagle—in many ways one of the most memorable and best-loved titles to be produced—emerged in 1950 from precisely this social and ethical context. Chapman underlines how Eagle was seen as a “vehicle for the promotion of British values” [53], pro-monarchy, and aiming to celebrate “consensus” [58]. Moreover, Eagle arrived at just the time a thoroughly British utopia was being marketed by government, not least through the 1951 “Festival of Britain”.

However, the patriotic attempt to protect the British comics economy from domination by American practices and products was less than wholly successful. Increasing consolidation and mergers slowly killed off Eagle in the 1960s and other titles by the early 1970s. Indeed, after this brief period during which British comics dominated the British market, with a large and loyal following, the rest of Chapman’s account is really a tale of slow decline, of false dawns and the occasional briefly burning flame. Whether in the form of arts lab offerings, fanzines, or “fast fiction” —all of which had (very) low print runs—the industry was involved in a long series of attempts to reinvent itself. But its heyday had clearly passed. The exception which proved the rule was Viz. From very humble beginnings in 1979, it reached a circulation of over one million copies per week by the start of the 1990s. But was Viz actually a “comic”? Or was it a magazine, a sort of “downmarket Private Eye” [217]? Chapman even attempts to make the case for a “renaissance” of British comics in the 1990s. But the case hardly seems to be a convincing one, as comics strove, no doubt sincerely, to reach “critical acclaim and even cultural respectability” [242]. It is a moot point whether Viz, for example, making such a deliberate feature of the excessive, of the vulgar, of “toilet” humour, can or should lay claim to be the embodiment of a specifically British aesthetic.

Aside from the relentlessly rude, and various avatars of a grim, dystopian science fiction (Chapman concentrates here on 2000AD and its sub-fascist enforcer “Judge Dredd”), the main approach which has been periodically pressed into service in order to pump some life back into the ailing comics culture, is war (especially World War Two) and violence. Chapman surveys an array of titles which, at various points from the mid-1970s onwards, have managed to mark temporary pauses in the ongoing decline of the industry: Victor, Battle, Action... But Chapman himself, as he picks his way through this less than inspiring catalogue, recognises its “ideological limitations” [165]. In the case of Judge Dredd, Chapman looks briefly at the adaptation of what is a comic of debateable merit, into a film which, by all accounts, barely merits debate. Other attempts to shock, such as Toxic had, Chapman admits, “few redeeming qualities” [239]. Tank Girl—in which the eponymous heroine lives in / drives a tank around the Australian outback with a mutant kangaroo for a boyfriend—for some inexplicable reason failed to convert into a successful film (...!) The 1995 attempt to do so is, in Chapman’s own estimation, “indescribably awful” [238].

James Chapman has produced a well-written, well researched book, which is attractive and quite enjoyable to read. Perhaps it was always going to be difficult, with such a subject, however, to avoid cataloguing the publications: and Chapman does fall into the trap in a number of places. The sheer proliferation of titles means that more time is often spent informing the reader about arrivals and departures in the market place, than talking about the merits and demerits of the content, such as it is. Chapman is definitely at his best when he stands back from this urge for completeness and looks in depth at one title—as he does with Eagle in chapter two.

The underlying questions—Is there an important gap in our knowledge here? Is this a subject which deserves further serious scrutiny from historians?—do not admit of easy answers. James Chapman can at least claim to have cleared the ground in an orderly and informed manner. Readers of his study will arrive at their own judgement of whether the response of comics to “topical issues” [185] is of a kind that tells us anything important about the comics or the issues. There is an attempt to show that we are in the presence here of an important part of Britain’s social and cultural history. Yet, on the basis of the evidence put forward, as Chapman himself states, “comics remained the preserve of children” [239], or just possibly of some adults who remained attached to them “well beyond the usual age for reading comics” [161]: certainly Chapman is drawn to register “the prevalent view of high-street retailers that comics were essentially a medium for children” [215]. Indeed, one of the more serious things that this study engages with at various points is the way in which childhood and youth were clearly being redefined in post-war Britain, as it moved more completely into the social and cultural problematics of consumerism.

To the extent that there was an “adult” readership for British comics, it is one whose “cultural competence” [188], it seems to the present reader at least, was easily pleased. Though what Chapman has confirmed here, in the myriad tales of gung-ho derring-do and the frequent penchant for medievalism, not to say a continuing obsession with the Gothic, is the extraordinary penetration of a certain vision of Britishness into the world of comics. Though it may well be the case that some comics made / make legitimate, even lucid comment on the state of British society, it is perhaps over-stressing their importance to suggest that any of them fall “squarely within the tradition of British social realism” [192], since what they say simply does not seem to be on a par with the challenge thrown down to social and political institutions by Room at the Top (1958), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), or A Kind of Loving (1962). What is clear, howevernotwithstanding the occasional satirical barbis the predominantly “Establishment” view of Britain and the British which British comics seemed to be working with.


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