Wednesday, 28 March 2007


In their quest to retain viewers’ interest, producers of historical documentaries have increasingly turned to the bastard genre of the drama-doc. Neither full-fledged historical drama, which viewers know to treat as possible fiction, nor sober account of the sifting, weighing and analysis of evidence, drama-docs’ third person voice-overs and talking heads sequences lend unjustified authority to the passages of dramatised reconstruction. Combined with a traditional realistic, mimetic style of dramatic presentation, this creates a spurious impression of accuracy and precision and a false sense of confidence in what is, in fact, at least partly speculative.

Comics can have the same effect. Will Eisner’s last book was The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which traces the depressing story of how the repeated unmasking of the Protocols as fraud and forgery has failed to prevent their continued acceptance by fanatics. Eisner’s book is sincere, and seems thoroughly researched. But take a look at a typical page (click to enlarge this and other images):

Here the reader might reasonably assume that Eisner has combined a real clipping from The Times with a speculative reconstruction of a conversation between two journalists. But, in 1921, the front page of The Times was still given over to small ads. The story cannot have appeared below the masthead like that. Eisner has presumably combined the text from an interior page with the masthead, so that the story can be clearly identified as having run in what was, at the time, widely seen as the world’s most authoritative newspaper. Given the subject he is discussing, this sort of mixture of artifice and truth seems ironically unsatisfactory.

Combining text and comic-strip narrative can, however, have quite the opposite effect. Terry Deary’s enormously successful series of children’s books, Horrible Histories, combines text with comic-strip sequences and single cartoons drawn by Martin Brown. Here is a sample page from The Vicious Vikings:

Here, the cartoony style and jocular tone make it very clear to the reader that what he sees should not be taken as literally true and accurate. But he learns something, too, about the stories Vikings told about themselves.

This mix of text and cartoon isn't confied to non-fiction. Before he hit the big time with His Dark Materials, Philip Pullman used it in two of his books for children: Count Karlstein, or The Ride of the Demon Huntsman and Spring-Heeled Jack, a Story of Bravery and Evil. Both were based on school plays he had written, presumably while he was a teacher rather than a schoolboy.

Of the two, Count Karlstein presents the more interesting comic strip elements. The story is a cross between Northhanger Abbey and Hammer horror – two young orphan girls see the world through the filter of gothic romance, but their uncle really has sold his soul to the Demon Huntsman. The tale takes in long-lost heirs, Italian conjurers-cum-conmen-cum-spies, and indomitable English schoolmistresses. The artwork, by Patrice Aggs, is reminiscent of period prints by the likes of Gillray and Rowlandson in its cross-hatching, style of lettering and balloon placement. It is not always clear why Pullman makes the choices he does about which parts to present in prose and which in comic-strip, but he does use the latter to pull off some tricks which would otherwise be difficult to achieve, such as the running commentary on events by assorted inanimate objects.

Occasionally, Pullman and Aggs create some interesting effects, such as the double-page spread below. The left-hand page recounts Miss Davenport’s arrival at the Jolly Huntsman inn. The right-hand page describes Sergeant Snitsch’s investigation there. A single panel running across the bottom of both pages draws events together.

Spring-Heeled Jack is less interesting. Jack was a genuine Victorian adventure character, and you can read about him in Jess Nevins’ magnificent Encyclopaedia of Fantastic Victoriana. Here, he helps a group of children escape from a wicked orphanage superintendent and find their long-lost father. But the comic strip parts, draw by David Mostyn, have little period flavour, and contain few interesting storytelling devices.

All the same, both books are great fun, and the mix of prose and picture-strips can hardly fail to interest anyone who reads illustrated blog entries like this one.

Picture sources (from top):

Will Eisner The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, WW Norton, 2005

Terry Deary Horrible Histories: The Vicious Vikings, illustrated by Martin Brown, Scholastic Children’s Books, 1994

Philip Pullman Count Karlstein, or The Ride of the Demon Huntsman, illustrated by Partice Aggs, cover by Peter Bailey, Corgi Yearling, 1991

Philip Pullman Spring-Heeled Jack, a Story of Bravery and Evil, illustrated by David Mostyn, cover by Peter Bailey, Corgi Yearling, 1989

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