Thursday, 23 September 2010

What I Don't Know Has Hurt Me: An Influence Map Of An Ignorance Of British Comics

Concluding the brief look at Influence Maps begun yesterday on TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics;


What's possibly most revealing about these Influence Maps, no matter how awfully executed, is what's so obviously absent from them. (*1) For anybody glancing at the one above, for example, would be quite right in concluding that I haven't been particularly interested in British comic books at all. And though I can't say that that's a thought that I've been consciously mulling around in the past few decades, it's indisputably true, and it was especially so during the Sixties and Seventies, when I should've been gaining a taste for the indigenous fare. Yet, as a boy, I couldn't wait to leave the world of the Beano and the Victor from the cornershop newsagents behind, and despite my willingness to read just about anything I could with words and pictures placed together within the same panels, I'd always, always, reached for the glossier American product first.

*1:- The shameful explanation for how distastefully tacky my Influence Maps are is discussed over at m'other blog, TooBusyThinkingAboutMyComics, for whatever that's worth


It's only now that I regret my lack of interest in British comics, for I'm absolutely sure that I've missed out on connecting with material which is not only of quality, but also redolent of a British culture that's now as lost as my own past is. For I've become more and more aware as time has progressed that the much of the mainstream of British comics that once seemed so unimpressively saturated with jingoism and complacency was at least in considerable part composed of as much rebelliousness as it was of deference.

It's a thought, I must admit, that first started to grow a tail and splash around when I re-read book 3 of "Zenith" in the mid-1990s, for I was so incredibly moved by the appalling deaths meted out to the analogues of the likes of Billy The Cat and Desperate Dan that it dawned on me that I must have cared far more for the characters than I had ever realised.

But those endless Commando booklets had never captured my attention, and the apparent tedium of yet another season with Roy Race escaped my powers of perseverance, and so I never even thought to check out "Battle" and "Action" in the mid-Seventies, because I just assumed that it'd be more of the same "Achtungs" and chirpy working-class cockney cannon fodder. As a consequence, I've never even succeeded in engaging with "Charley's War" on an emotional level, which is why it's shamefully missing from the map above, though I assure you, I'm working on the matter.

It's rather late in the day to realise how I regret not possessing the clear-minded recall and expert knowledge of UK comics displayed by the likes of Steve Holland (*2) and Lew Stringer. (*3) Until this afternoon, I'd simply not thought of how utterly ignorant I am where the comic book history of my own country is concerned, and now I find myself suspecting that for every much-read volume of "Dan Dare" and each well-thumbed copy of "Toxic" starring "Marshal Law", there'll have been any number of characters worth mourning the passing of, and, indeed, daydreaming the resurrection of too. And I sit here, with Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury's estimable "Great British Comics" beside my keyboard, wondering where on earth do I start, and how?

*2:- Do, if you don't already, visit his "Bear Alley" site, and you can use the UK Blog of Honour link to your right to do so.
*3:- And his "Blimey!" is another must-frequent blog, again accessible to your right.

Your suggestions of any much-missed British comics and Brit-com characters, from small-press to "Commando", would of course be very much welcomed in the comments below.



  1. Exactly the opposite for me, Col: I came to US comics quite late, or at least I consciously came to US comics quite late after a mis-spent youth of UK comicry, but a perusal of my influence map reveals that while happy to read UK-originated Marvel shovelware like Thundercats, Zoids or Transformers for their borderline sci-fi appeal, I was also reading their back-up strips like Spider-Man and Rocket Raccoon, so it looks like I was into the US stuff long before I thought I was. In my defence, I knew at the time that with very rare exceptions (Power Pack holds up now just as it did then, dated or not) the US stuff was weaker than the UK material - though most Transformers fans (even the yanks) could have told you that.

    As to catching up, and if you don't mind using the digital route if it's the only option for your academic purposes, is a good place to start, being an archive of some of the original Action before artwork was butchered and scripts neutered to appease moral guardians largely unaware of its existence until told to be angry by the usual redtops.
    Far too many grown men will also admit a fondness for Misty, a girls' horror comic influenced by 2000ad's anthology format and larger page counts for stories. Undeservedly seen as an awful enterprise, the 1980s Eagle revamp nonetheless gave us the black humour of Doomlord, a slightly less stiff Dan Dare and the continuing adventures of murderous supercomputer Max in The thirteenth Floor after the '2000ad does EC Comics for children' anthology Scream! folded into Eagle's waiting pages.
    Starlord is also worth a gander given that some 2000ad stalwarts like Strontium Dog originated there.
    I share your disinterest in the Commando minibooks, but the format did have a sci-fi equivalent in Starblazer, where Grant Morrison and (I think) Neal Gaiman sold their first work.

  2. A number of Misty strips - a girls horror comic from 1980 - are (legally) available to read online.

    I always liked Winner Loses All, which combines horse-riding with, er, deals with Satan. And it's a surprisingly bleak read.

    - Charles RB

  3. Hello Mr B:- reading your words made me realise that I'm starting to develop two quite opposing thoughts about the mass-market Britcoms of past years. On the one hand, I'm with you; American comics were on the whole simply very much better. And yet I'm also starting to worry whether that's not an illusion, whether it wasn't some form of insidious cultural imperialism that made me ignore my own nation's comics. I feel like I'm in the late fifties and trying to choose between Little Richard and Elvis, or skiffle and folk music. Each has its own virtues, so why did I opt for the American beast?

    Thank you for your recommendations. Mind you, I seem to become as interested in the things you warn me against as those you praise. You could either recommend or insult whatever you like and my mind would decide that Mr B said so, so I better check it out.

    Garth Ennis speaks well of the Commando books, did he not? And that makes me feel that I've missed the point there too. And yet, if everything's good and everything has its own virtues, where do you stop, or indeed, start?

    It's always good to hear from you, Mr B. And now I can justify reading Misty! Huzzah.

  4. Hello Charles! That's two votes for Misty, I see, which I find as pleasing as I do remarkable. But horse-riding and satan seems to me so fantastic that even were it to be awful, it'd still be perfect.

  5. " the 1980s Eagle revamp nonetheless gave us the black humour of Doomlord"

    Doomlord! A few years ago, a small-press publisher did an authorised reprint of the first proper Doomlord strip (the first three were photo-strips) and it was bloody excellent. The fact the world-saving hero is also a mass murderer and, being an alien, has an ethical code (the many outweigh the few so it's justified to kill a civilian to save more civilians) that he thinks we're the weirdos for not having, was an interesting idea for a kids strip.

    - Charles RB

  6. Charles, that's sounds thoroughly compelling. I always had Doomlord pegged as a Tharg-esque strip not worth the bothering with. Now, the very idea of the strip is fascinating. Another for the list to track down!

  7. Email David McDonald via Doomlord(AT)eircom(DOT)net and he can hook you up with the restored reprint collection of Deathlords of Nox, the first post-fumetti outing for the strip and one of Wagner and Grant's more black-hearted stabs at kiddie comics. Grant is on record as saying he thought it would have made a great kids' television show, and given his work for Action Man and Ace Lightning, he's in more of a position to know than we are.

    It's not that I have bad things to say about Commando minis, Col, it's just that they aren't really my thing. I did get them for a while out of the sense I was missing out on something, but they struck me as a bit too middle-classy in their worldview and presentation.

    And no-one needs an excuse to read Misty - I hooked up some younger relatives with samplers and they were shat right up. That it can frighten small children even now surely makes it compulsory reading?

  8. Thank you, Mr Brigonos:- I'll do that. It all sounds fascinating.

    I've nought against the Commando books either. I respect the fact that they've kept alive in the marketplace, a laudable achievement in itself. I can't help but feel I'm missing out on something, but I can't find the way in to those stories. I even bought the first two of the big sold-in-every-bookshop compilations, but I just didn't find either a convincing narrative or something which reflects my knowledge of the period. It's not that I've got a problem with war stories. Mr Ennis's story of a ship-launched Hurricane pilot in War Stories II is one of my favourite stories ever, and I'm writing a piece on the Unknown Soldier at the moment. But perhaps I've not read the best Commando stories of recent vintage ...

    I'm sold on Misty and I haven't even read it yet. It ticks too many boxes to not be brilliant, or it does until I actually read it.

  9. Try Tammy too - featuring the occult and tales of girls from council blocks etc

    Even dear old Bunty had bionic horses, slightly sinister alien rabbits and rebellious ballet dancers in totalitarian worlds where music was banned and people brainwashed by night in their sleep as well as the inevitable brave orphans.

  10. Hello Elizabeth:- those strips sound wonderful! "Rebellious ballet dancers in totalitarian worlds .... " sounds like the first line of a latter-day Leonard Cohen lyric, and makes me realise that the modern managerial preference for "real-world" takes on adventure strips misses the wonderful out-there quality which helped to make so many comic strips far more than the sum of their parts. I genuingly feel like sitting down and writing a 6 page story of those ballet dancers now, and wish such a thing would come up on the "Thrills Of The Future" section of the Nerve Centre.

    Thank you for the recommendations. Tammy and Bunty it is then, and I feel all the better for saying so!

  11. Lion and Valiant were both pretty awesome in the mid to late 1960s. Mostly adventure strips, some humour here and there. The artwork was sometimes staggeringly good. I have heard of people scanning swathes of them and making cbr files available online, so any bilious despair at the lack of papery reprints can be partially assuaged thus.

  12. Hello Alec:- the thought of Lion and Valiant having been good all the time that the very young me was turning his nose up at them would be another of those ironies that're queuing up to mug me. And, yet, having been quite wrong about so much else about Brit-Coms, Lion and Valiant it is. Thank you for your recommendations.

  13. To be fair, it's mainly the artwork that shines. Historical interest probably makes me more forgiving of much of the writing than i would be if it were new.
    Looking into the roots of that thing called thrill-power can take one on an unpredictable journey.
    All the same, Steel Claw, starting in Valiant #1, is a must-read.

  14. Hello Alec:- it's getting to the point where I can't read a comic without finding it fascinating for one reason or another, even if it's awful, and that's the opposite of what I thought would happen when I started blogging. As you say, the roots of thrill-power(and of any comic-book energy source!)seem to be everywhere. I've just been reading the Leigh Gallagher interview in the Megazine and his fond and sincere memories of "Scream" from the mid-1980s. I'd never have thought that was a comic worth investigating; I recall being sniffy about it when I saw on the stands way back then. But there you go, I was wrong, and to Scream I shall be turning too.

    Ah, but the Steel Claw I do remember, and recall as child being confused why the premise of the strip kept changing, though I didn't think of matters in QUITE those terms. I have the first Titan reprint somewhere here. I shall search it out. My thanks for the steer.