British Comics: A Cultural History
British comics are some of the best in the world and have brought us characters as diverse as Ally Sloper and Judge Dredd and as beloved as Dan Dare, Rupert the Bear, Dennis the Menace and Oor Wullie. The UK has a rich history of comics publication, and has been home to legendary artists such as Leo Baxendale, Dudley D. Watkins, Frank Hampton, Dave Gibbons, David Lloyd and Dave McKean, and the writing of Pat Mills, John Wagner, Alan Grant, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis.
Chapman’s British Comics: A Cultural History does an excellent job of condensing the rich story of comics in the UK into a very readable narrative, exploring their long history and celebrating recent successes. Chapman, a professor of film studies at the University of Leicester, provides exactly what the title promises. The book is hugely informative and engaging, focusing on how comics can provide insights into society and often mirror political events.
Chapman starts with some brief discussion of Hogarth and Gillray before moving onto the emergence of British comics in the recognisable modern form (sequential visual narratives accompanied by captions and dialogue). Comics like this emerged throughout Europe and America in the late 19th century. It was in the 1890s that British comics really made a mark. Characters like Ally Sloper became stars and titles such as Illustrated Chips and Comic Cuts set the standard for decades to come.
Chapters that follow trace the emergence of increasingly innovative visual storytelling, culminating in the successful The Beano and The Dandy as well as a host of other titles from the Dundee based publisher D.C. Thomson. Chapman is on particularly good form with the postwar comic boom. He devotes chapters to The Eagle and to the history of girls comics – the former being one of the most imaginative comics ever produced in the UK, especially in the form of Frank Hampton’s Dan Dare strips, and the latter, one of the most overlooked aspects of the medium.
Later chapters examine the emergence of violent action comics and a subversive trend that responded to the stifling politics and economic troubles of the 1970s and 1980s. Chapman gives due credit to 2000 AD and Judge Dredd, before moving on to examine alternative comics and what he calls a ‘renaissance’ starting in the 1990s, in which creators such as Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons and others came to enjoy international success, overtaking US comics in popularity. This has helped to maintain the reputation of the British comics industry at a time when it faces competition from other forms of popular entertainment and the pressures of economic hardship.
Overall Chapman’s book is at its best when the comics are contextualised, showing how British comics have consistently mirrored social changes and political tensions.
There are some faults, however. Chapman presents his book as the first historical account of British comics, which is arguable. The excellent histories written by Roger Sabin, Paul Gravett and Martin Barker covered similar ground and in some ways this book struggles to move much beyond them. It draws together the story of British comics in a single volume and does this well, but it rather under-reaches. To those familiar with the subject this may feel like another introduction in a field that now needs a second wave of ground-breaking research and probing scholarship to move forward.
That said, it would be difficult to do something comprehensive in a single volume. However, while this book does not rewrite the history of British comics, there is for the general reader much here that will surprise and delight, evoking cherished memories of childhood, while undermining the wave of nostalgia with attention to the social and political tensions that surrounded those supposedly simpler times.
Chris Murray is the author of Champions of the Oppressed? Superhero Comics, Popular Culture and Propaganda in America During World War Two (Hampton Press, 2011).
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