The influence of the comic book has never been greater, from movies to streaming and beyond, but the journey comics took from disposable kids' magazines to literary prize-winning books and global franchises turned on a highly unusual group of writers and artists. Few would have expected a small gathering of British comic book fans and creators in the early '70s to spark a cultural revolution, but this was the start of a disparate movement of punks, dropouts and disaffected youths who reinvented a medium and became the imaginative heart of a global success story.
So says the burb for this book, and often there is a fair bit of embellishment in there to make the story seem more fairy tale like to the average punter on the streets. But in this case, it’s absolutely true that an assortment of English writers and artists who had grown up reading Leo Baxendale strips in The Beano (Minnie the Minx, Bash Street Kids), Dan Dare reprints in Eagle as well as whatever Marvel or DC titles could be found thanks to the American GI’s stationed in Britain during WWII passing them on, would help to elevate the comic book into the prestigious format it is today.
Starting off by discussing legendary artists like Dave Gibbons, Kevin O’Neill and Ian Gibson graduating from the 1960’s fledging fandom circles that so bemused comic book publishers at the time to working on long forgotten titles like Lion, Jet, Valiant and Jackie. Eventually, the writing team of Pat Mills and John Wagner help put together Battle and Action. While the former remained a solid sales earner, Action became notorious for its violence, which led to one issue being withdrawn,
As noted elsewhere:
The fateful issue, published 18th September, was Action’s thirty-second…Perhaps it had grown too confident, but it was also the victim of circumstances. Early in the month, football violence had once more hit the headlines when Millwall fan Ian Pratt died at New Cross station following a scuffle with West Ham supporters that led to him falling under a train pulling into the station. That week’s cover sported an illustration by Carlos Ezquerra, later a stalwart of Judge Dredd in 2000 AD, and featured an angry mob in the foreground, flames behind them engulfing tower blocks. In the foreground a punky looking youth swirls a metal chain, bearing down on a middle-aged man, prone on the floor. While nearby a policeman’s helmet lies on the floor. The implication that the fallen figure is a bobby is obvious.
Arguably, the British comics industry had never seen anything like it. While war stories were staples off British publications, the Tommies would always beat Harry Hun and the worst that Dennis the Menace got was a slippering from his dad. This leads to a chain of events which result in the creation of 2000AD, becoming Ground Zero for British comics and creators.
Moving onto the halcyon days of the 1980’s and how the independent scene flourished through the likes of Viz, Warrior and Deadline as well as how so many writers and artists were picked up by American publishers, Stock captures the sense of endless possibilities as well as how the medium and the market grew due to classics like V For Vendetta, Watchmen and Tank Girl.
But Stock is able use this book as a a cautionary tale of how an industry can destroy itself through neglect. One example given is The Dandy. At its peak, the comic had a circulation of 2 million worldwide and yet, by the time the print copy was discontinued in 2012, it was shifting 8000 copies. By contrast, it’s rival (The Beano) could still move 38,000. Obviously, children’s extra-curricular activities have changed substantially over the decades and print media has been in decline for quite a while. But note the difference in circulation figures?
Another example is hopping on the cultural zeitgeist for credibility. By the early 90’s, there was a general feeling that some creators were running on an empty tank, once pioneering titles had subsided into wilful obscurity and the hope was that films would help to replenish the ranks. However, film adaptations of Judge Dredd and Tank Girl merely add to the downward spiral by removing the subversive elements of both and pitching them as straight films, thus alienating the fans and drawing no response from the average cinemagoer.
Although a little drawn out in places, and a little too in thrall to Grant Morrison (the definition of a chancer) for my liking, this book celebrates a moment in time that cannot be recreated at all but the reverberations continue in 2024.
Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave!
Karl Stock, 2023, Comic Book Punks: How a Generation of Brits Reinvented Pop Culture. Rebellion Books ISBN-13: 978-1786186942
⏩ Christopher Owens was a reviewer for Metal Ireland and finds time to study the history and inherent contradictions of Ireland. He is currently the TPQ Friday columnist.