Viz magazine. The Beano. Judge Dredd. 2000AD… But that’s about it. Why doesn’t Britain have a comic book industry?
Try an extended metaphor: Think of all English literature, laid out like a vast library. Ten thousand Romantic novels by Trollope. Cupboards crammed with textbooks on Shakespeare. Ubiquitous thumbed paperbacks of Harry Potter, Narnia, the Lord of the Rings. And enough soft porn to fill an Olympic swimming pool.
But the shelf – if there was even a shelf – of British comic books would be nasty, brutish, and short. Why is this? Are we somehow less talented than our square-jawed American cousins?
Certainly, there is no shortage of appetite here in Blighty. Our sales figures are positively stellar. We shovelled away the last Batman film – to the tune of £57 million quid on cinema tickets, in a few weekends – and now we are clamouring for the next one. And yet. Where is the British Superman? The UK Wonder Woman? Who will assemble the London Avengers? Or recruit the Birmingham Justice League?
I admit: I am not quite being fair. We do have Marvel UK, with our own version of Captain America…
But Captain Britain… Ask yourself: Why haven’t you heard of him? The answer is largely because – despite being re-imagined and publicised by Alan Moore, the man behind Watchmen and V for Vendetta – he is a cliche in the wrong crowd. A pure import of self-actualising be-the-best-you-be-ness. A U.S.A. sore-thumb, crowbarred into a sceptical British soil. We prefer our heroes to be more complex, conflicted. Think of alcoholic Winston Churchill, brooding in the War Office. Or emotionless Admiral Nelson, dying on the deck of the HMS Victory. Our heroes do not wear tights.
But whatever the reason, we are lagging wallet-emptyingly behind. Last year, North Americans bought 5.6 million comic books and graphic novels, at a cost of $80 million dollars. That’s pure print-sales. The Hollywood films, TV cartoons, theme park rides, breakfast cereals, party costumes, action figures, and T-shirts are all on top of that.
But while the U.S. comic industry is coining it, the UK market is underdeveloped. When Dundee University tried to inaugurate a modest BA in Comic Studies – the very first in this country – Labour MP Tom Harris waded in to accuse them of ‘dumbing down’. He shouted that the new qualification would ‘play right into the Tories’ hands’ – as if George Osborne were somehow in league with Lex Luthor, waiting to unleash a flood of comic characters into suburban Britain.
Aside from the emblematic philistinism shown by Tom Harris and his ilk, our poverty is baffling. Some of the top international comic-creators are not only British, but they also try strenuously to write for a UK audience. Alan Moore is perhaps the most acclaimed. But Grant Morrison is another modern example.
Nor are we short of artists. Every year, London has tower blocks that are literally stacked to the gunnels with the Mozarts of graphic design. Log on to Deviant Art if you don’t believe me. Or, check out the UK Comic Book Alliance, a genuine grassroots movement led by enthusiasts. Britain has a veritable army of comic-creators, waiting to be employed. There is even an Internet encyclopedia for UK comics, run entirely by volunteers.
So what’s the problem? Who are the villains in our rogues gallery? The fault lies squarely with our publishers, and their echo-chamber outlets in the Guardian and BBC. They are obsessed with literary fiction and children’s fantasy. As Shane Chebsey from ScarComics.com says:
‘A huge obstacle is distribution. There is one major distributor of comics in the western hemisphere: Diamond. They have a virtual monopoly and only get behind books published by the major US publishers, which means comic shops are full of derivative superhero comics that outnumber other genres 10 to 1.’
This concern is shared by other experts. Tim Pilcher of the UK Comic Book Alliance told me:
‘The main obstacles for growth are simply that there’s not enough publishers to go round to get all this material out there. But the rise of digital publishing is becoming a potential haven for creators and small publishers to reach a global audience.’
So what is to be done? 0 per cent corporation tax on comic book profits? Divert all the loose cash sloshing through poetry book prizes into graphic novels? It is extremely hard to say. But there are also faltering signs of a revival. As Tim Pilcher says:
‘There are at least 17 shows (off the top of my head) this year… We are going through a true renaissance of British comics at the moment, with a vast amount of original and vibrant creativity and a wonderfully diverse range of topics, genres and themes… The UK really is spoilt for choice at the moment!’
But the crux is this. When the new Batman film hits the cinemas shortly, Brits will probably throw more than £60 million quid at it, on tickets alone. So Publishers, get your act together! Put your house in order! We can’t subsist on American imports forever. The talent is ready. The audience is waiting. It’s time to get the cheque books out.
Paul Abbott works in politics by day. He reads comic books by night. Find him on Twitter at @Paul_T_Abbott
INDEPENDENT UK PUBLISHERS OF COMIC BOOKS (hat-tip to Tim Pilcher for details):
Headed by Scot Kenny Penman, they produce books by up-and-coming creators such Warwick Johnson and Joe Decie. Last year they produced the anthology Nelson, edited by longtime stalwarts Woodrow Phoenix and Rob Davis. This year they also collected Nick Abadzis’ Hugo Tate (from Deadline), that has been out of print for 18 years.
Highlight: Hector Umbra, Bladerunner-esque detective saga. Set in Munich. The first of German creator Uli Oesterle’s long-form works to appear in English.
Created by Emma Hayley and Doug Wallace. SMH started out in 2007 publishing Manga Shakespeare titles by all-British creators, and have since expanded their range to cover everything from biographies of Hunter S. Thompson and The Beatles to adaptations of Sherlock Holmes novels, and original graphic novels. They have become so successful that they were actually bought out by AbramsComicArts last year, but main
tain their own unique editorial control.
Highlight: A dizzying graphic adaptation of Tristram Shandy, Laurence Sterne’s eccentric 18th century novel.
The original small UK comics publisher, headed by Tony Bennett. Has been going for over 35 years. Publishers of The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Robert Crumb, Hunt Emerson, as well as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill (in assoc. with US publishers, Top Shelf).
Highlight: The Lovely Horrible Stuff, an autobiographical investigation into money. It’s a voyage from the imaginary wealth of Ponzi schemes to the all-too-tangible stone currency of the Micronesian island of Yap.
One of the longest running publishers of pop culture books, comics and magazines in the UK, they recently lost the rights to reprint DC Comics graphic novels.
Highlight: they are now actively looking to produce homegrown graphic novels such as Martin Eden’s excellent Spandex (featuring the first all-gay superhero team).
The brainchild of Shane Chebsey and Andy Richmond. With new titles like Madam Samurai – set in 19th Century Victorian London – Scar Comics is now starting to bring homegrown British comics to a wider audience.
Highlight: Sardines & Solitude, the lonesome adventures of a single man imprisoned on the moon. The whole book is written as a poem with sequential illustration.
Very much the art/design-led crowd of comics. Inspired by Art Spigelman’s RAW comics of the 1980s. Launched the first East London Comics & Arts Festival (ELCAF), which was a success with the Shoreditch hipster types. They have their own shop and continue to grow a loyal following.
Highlight: Hilda and the Midnight Giant. Noir children’s comic. Hilda, we are told, finds her world turned upside down as she’&”faces the prospect of leaving her snow-capped birthplace for the hum of the megalopolis’. Worth a look.
UK COMIC BOOK CONVENTIONS:
The main website with all the listings is www.comicconventions.co.uk.