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Great British Comics:

An Introduction

Contrary to some pundits’ claims that British comics are "pretty much dead in the water" or "down the tubes", with my new book Great British Comics I want to show how British comics today have continued and, if you look, are thriving, not just on the newsstands but also via other channels, for example in graphic novels, the indie and small press, in strips in newspapers and magazines, new ‘Original English Language’ manga, or via American companies and of course online. Great British Comics is not a misty-eyed nostalgia trip; it looks back with a clarity of vision to the past and comes bang up to date to show the continuities and changes in themes and styles across a century or more.

My co-author and co-creator Peter Stanbury and I think a book like this is really needed right now. It seems we’re not alone. After the extraordinary success of Manga: 60 Years of Japanese Comics in 2004, and while we were finalising Graphic Novels: Stories To Change Your Life in 2005, several people contacted me about what was coming next, what would be Book 3 in this ‘part-work’ series of big, colourful volumes on different facets of comics. Many were urging me to produce a similar one on British comics. Among them were artist, writer and historian David Roach, fresh from his sterling work on the True Brit compendium from TwoMorrows, and ace cartoonist Craig Conlan.

In fact, the idea of our doing a book on British Comics had been brewing for ages and was already under way by then. There were a number of new approaches we wanted to bring to this book. For one, we wanted to show original artworks, crisply reproduced to show them in all their subtlety and detail, something very few books on British comics so far have done. It’s stunning to be able to study the artistry of Hampson, Bellamy, Embleton, Reid, Baxendale, Watkins, McMahon, Colquhoun and others and I hope will help more people appreciate the skills that go into crafting a comics page.

As with the previous two books, the emphasis is again on storytelling, on actual interior pages and scenes. One problem with books on British comics in the past is their tendency to show almost nothing but front covers, especially ‘rare’ Number Ones. Covers look bright and eye-catching, and of course we’ve included several, but the real power of the medium is in the narrative page itself. You’ll also find photographs here, of past masters, and mistresses, of British comics, as well as glimpses of readers and of other related social and cultural moments and items. All designed to show how comics have been a big part of British life.

Another landmark about this book is the crediting of the vast majority of the artists, many of whom have never been named in a book before. Thanks to astonishing experts like David Roach, Alan Clark and Steve Holland, we’ve been able to identify some of the brilliant, unsung artists. They are long overdue some recognition and I hope the book will help some way towards that.

Without getting overly patriotic or nationalistic about it, we do feel British achievements in comics deserve much more attention. The Americans especially continue to produce hundreds of studies, monographs, historical surveys, archive reprints on their comics every year. We need more books of and about British comics. With Steve Holland’s forthcoming history of Look & Learn, 2000AD‘s big history by David Bishop, and more reprints of classics from Trigan Empire and Commandos to the first Beano and Dandy facsimiles, it’s time for British comics to get their turn in spotlight.

Paul Gravett
London, July 2006

A Q&A WITH PAUL GRAVETT: 
You’ve been involved in the comics scene for more than two decades, from physically selling comics at marts to editing collections, writing books and articles and curating exhibitions. What do you think are the biggest changes ­ good or bad ­ you’ve seen in the UK scene over the years?

Paul Gravett:
Phew! So much has changed. One major change is the rise and fall of the newsstand market for comics here. Looking back in my new book with Peter Stanbury, Great British Comics, it’s staggering to see how much material was being published and sold here. Weeklies like Eagle could sell nearly one million every week, School Friend for girls sold even more, and 1960s hits like TV21 were not far behind, at around 600,000 a week - astonishing successes.

As we’ve seen, the late 1980s and early 1990s saw a boom in attempts at adult comic magazines, while kids’ weeklies began failing or falling by the wayside. At the peak of this phenomenon, Viz soared to over one million copies each issue and spawned loads of imitators - Brain Damage and Oink! (OK for kids) were two of the best I think. And we had pssst!, Warrior, Escape, Heartbreak Hotel, Deadline, Strip, Crisis, Revolver, Judge Dredd Megazine. Things went pear-shaped by the mid-1990s and since then publishers feel it’s become too costly and risky to put more adult comics magazines onto the newsstands. So there are still plenty of comics for sale these days but mainly TV, toy, game and film related and aimed at kids or pre-schoolers - they seem more like toys with a free comic attached than comics with a free toy attached.

At the same time, similar to the States, the direct sales comic shop market offered a lifeline for comics when the newsstands became less welcoming and financially practical. The risk is that specialist stores cater only for the dedicated collector and don’t reach out and appeal to the broader public who will buy comics again if they can feel comfortable and be guided to explore what is on offer.

The big shift too has been the headhunting of British creators by US publishers. They may be published across the Atlantic, but lots of modern comics by British creators really are rooted totally in British life and culture. They are British comics, to all intents and purposes. The brain drain is a shame though, because UK publishers have let these incredible talents slip through their fingers, for whatever reasons.

The great hope that seems to be coming true now is the graphic novel, and the welcoming of them in bookshops and libraries. That’s been boosted by a steady tide of first-rate works that get the media excited and by the arrival and burgeoning presence of manga, attracting a younger and female readerships.

Through it all, one constant is the vitality and persistence of self-published and small-press comics, the true cutting edge where every new idea is possible and the breeding ground for one wave after another of strong, diverse, driven creators.

Comics fans, especially fans of more unusual and challenging fare, often look enviously at the respect accorded to sequential arts in neighbouring France (they even put on special trains for Angouleme!); how do you think the scene compares between the UK and France (and indeed Europe)?

We have the talents, but making a comparison we don’t have enough of the adventurous, intelligent publishers, the cultural and media support (yet), the sheer variety and quality and physical presence. I’m pleased that British creators are getting recognised again in Europe - Nabiel Kanan, Andi Watson, Simone Lia, Posy Simmonds, and Paul Grist for example are all being translated into French right now. Also Pat Mills, David Lloyd, Oscar Zarate, and young rising stars like James McKay, are working for the French companies and getting their original albums out there.

If anything, the French-language market right now is in overdrive, growing year-on-year every year for a decade, pumping out too many albums every week. It’s the fastest growing publishing sector there. Like Japan, it’s a vision of how comics can develop over here too, in time. I’m becoming convinced that the current growth in appreciation of the comics medium is part of the human evolutionary process. Not to get too New Age about this, but it coincides now with the advances in how people read and watch and think, their capacity to process information, visual and verbal, their minds opening. Comics will evolve and so will their readers and creators. Here in Britain we’re catching up.

After a long stint in traditional high-street bookselling I’ve seen interest in graphic novels rise steadily (along with sales). Mainstream press coverage of some work like Joe Sacco and mainstream literary awards like The Guardian Award for Jimmy Corrigan are also raising awareness among non-comics readers. Do you think this is a real opportunity for comics publishers to reach new audiences outside the comics stores or fear most chains will simply stock bestselling major titles and manga?

The good signs are that the major chains, when they have someone knowledgeable on staff, do carry a broad range and want to cater for all kinds of public. It all depends on people like them who believe in the medium. We must not make the mistakes of the late 1980s/early 1990s boom - when hype got out of hand and too many dud titles clogged up the shelves. I’m optimistic. The graphic novel is enjoying its Golden Age right now, we are living through an unprecedented global movement. It’s a remarkable time, as so many rich and wonderful works come to fruition. And the unique books to come, like Bryan Talbot‘s Alice in Sunderland next year, promise even more.

This is probably an unfair question, but given your knowledge of the scene and the theme of your forthcoming book I really have to ask you if you have any special favourite characters, strips, writers or artists?

You’re right, it’s impossible. I find it hard to narrow down my appreciation for comics to just a handful. So many different characters and creators mean things to me through my life, that I can’t choose between them. All I can say is that if you read my books and columns, visit my site, or the exhibitions and events I direct, like the Comica Festival back again at London’s ICA this October, you’ll get some idea of my tastes and preferences.

On a related topic, do you have any hot tips for British writers and artists readers should keep an eye out for?

Too many really here too - I’d point out the afore-mentioned James McKay for one. His City of Secrets, a lush, sophisticated SF album, is an impressive debut - it’s coming out from Mosquito editions in French and ought to be snapped up by someone for an English version please!

One point Peter and I wanted to make in Great British Comics  is that there are still masses of exciting and first-rate comics being produced here today. The book is not just a nostalgic time-warp - it comes bang up to date and shows the real continuity across the decades. The medium is as vigorous and fascinating as ever in Britain, as events like Bristol, Caption and the UK Web Comix Thing attest. Just look at Los Bros Etherington on Malcolm Magic, Paul Rainey’s There’s No Time Like The Present, Ben Dickson’s upcoming Falling Sky, Barnaby Richards and others spotlighted in Sturgeon White Moss, and the one-off visionary Malcy Duff. I’d also recommend Red Eye  very highly as a magazine with its finger on the racing pulse of Brit-Com right now. My latest PG Tips of course also appear in Comics International every month (plug!) and on my own website, updated every week.

As well as looking ahead, I’ve also been knocked out while doing this new book by the discoveries of Britain’s comics heritage, obscure or unjustly forgotten gems from the past, a pantheon of great artists, many of whom have never been named and identified before in a book on this subject. There is a crying need for more of these treasures to be recovered and resurrected. I hope Great British Comics helps to (re)awaken an appreciation of how much Britain has contributed to the comics medium and how much the medium is an important part of our culture, daily life and psyche.

Posted: July 30, 2006

This Q&A with Paul Gravett was conducted by Joe Gordon for Forbidden Planet International, during their month long web-based celebration of British comics during July 2006.

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