Sean Kleefeld recently asked what comics he should look out for when visiting Britain this August. I started jotting down some thoughts, but it quickly became clear that there was too much for a simple comment, so here it all is as a blog entry, you lucky people.
A quick disclaimer: I make no claims to expertise, nor to be a definitive arbiter of taste. I would welcome additions and alternative viewpoints. But I hope this post will be of use to anyone taking a holiday here.
If you want to swot up before arrival, there is nothing better than Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury’s book Great British Comics: Celebrating a Century of Ripping Yarns and Wizard Wheezes. As the title suggests, this is a big, lavishly illustrated history of British comics , actually stretching as far back as the creation of the first continuing comic strip character, Ally Sloper, in 1867, and beyond.
If you are globe-trotting this summer, you might prefer The Essential Guide to World Comics by Tim Pilcher and Brad Brooks, which has a good chapter on British comics, and other chapters on US, Japanese, South East Asian, Franco-Belgian, European, South and Central American, Scandinavian, and Australasian comics, plus one on a miscellany of other countries (it’s quite an eye opener, particularly revealing how comics sales are falling everywhere, even in Japan and Mexico).
For history on the web, start with Comics UK.
For the current British Comics scene, John Freeman’s Down the Tubes is indispensable. Among other things, it features a news section and listings of all current professional comics periodicals and books. The Forbidden Planet International Blog is also well worth checking. For British small press comics, try Bugpowder.
The magazine Comics International used to be highly valuable, not least for the directory of comics shops in Britain in the back. Unfortunately, since changing publisher a year ago, only one issue has appeared. Perhaps it should change its title to All-Star Comics International?
If you read all that history, you’ll get the impression that the dominant form of comic in Britain is the weekly anthology. Once, this was true, but no longer.
The twin giants of the children’s humour weekly comics still stand: The Beano and The Dandy, published by D C Thompson. Each contains a mix of 1 to 3 page-long stand-alone strips featuring continuing characters. The target audience is under-10s. The Beano has recently spawned a spin-off monthly, BeanoMax, aimed at 8-12 year olds, and containing a mix of strips and magazine features.
D C Thompson also publishes small-format digests featuring Beano and Dandy characters, and Classics from the Comics, a monthly reprint magazine mostly containing material from the 1950s through to the 1970s: I reviewed an edition here.
Of the boys’ weekly adventure anthologies, only 2000AD remains, though it might now more accurately be described as a nostalgic men’s weekly adventure anthology. I reviewed some recent editions here and here.
2000AD also has a monthly counterpart, the Judge Dredd Megazine, which mixes strips with articles (though in this case the articles are all about comics, and not just those from the 2000AD stable), and a reprint magazine, 2000AD Extreme Editions, which generally gathers together serialised weekly strips into a single lump.
The other great remaining anthology is the monthly Viz comic, the Geordie masterpiece of scabrous humour and topical satire, which mixes the classic children’s comic style of humour strip with outright filth and mock-articles in the style of the British tabloid newspapers. I reviewed an issue here, but be careful – it is marked “not for sale to children” for good reason.
The other long-standing comics format, the boys’ adventure comics digest, containing a complete self-contained story told in one or two panels per page, is now represented only by Commando (sometimes referred to as Commando Picture Library), which specialises in war stories – mostly, but not exclusively – about the Second World War.
Specialised girls’ comics have vanished, so far as I know, replaced by magazines.
So are British comics dying out? Not at all, but they have mutated. What you will find by the dozen in the Down the Tubes listings are children’s magazines based on a single franchise – anything from Tellytubbies to Thunderbirds, from Lazy Town to Shaun the Sheep - which mix a minority of comic-strip pages with puzzles, articles, posters and readers’ drawings. I have reviewed a couple that I rather like - Wallace and Gromit and Doctor Who Adventures – and one that I don’t - Action Man ATOM.
There is also the occasional children's magazine featuring a minority of comics pages but which is not tied to a particular franchise, such as Toxic.
Those seeking variant additions of US comic-books will also find a number of super-hero comics on the shelves, generally reprinting the contents of two US comics in each.
A couple of other periodicals are worth mentioning.
Private Eye is a magazine that mixes investigative journalism, political muckracking, and topical humour. It contains a lot of cartoons, including some in strip form. Two of its current political strips draw their inspiration from old British comics, satirising the Conservative Party in the style of Lord Snooty and His Pals, a long-running Beano series, and Prime-Minister-in-waiting Gordon Brown and his faction within the Labour Party in the style of Scottish classic comic-strip The Broons.
Spaceship Away is a semi-professional publication that started as a Dan Dare fanzine. It is notable for containing a brand new Dan Dare comic strip drawn by Don Harley, the long-term assistant to original series artist and creator Frank Hampson. It is also reprinting other 1950s SF strips, such as the adaptation of the radio series Journey into Space shown here.
You will also find comic strips elsewhere - for example, Fortean Times, a magazine about unexplained phenomena, ghosts, UFOs and all that jazz, features a one-page strip every month by the magnificent cartoonist Hunt Emerson. He might also still be drawing Firkin the Cat for the soft porno magazine Penthouse, but I wouldn't know about that ...
You won’t find many of these titles in comics shops in Britain – for the most part, those concentrate on American comics, graphic novels, and translations of manga. You might find 2000AD, the various Doctor Who titles and, if you are lucky, Spaceship Away and possibly some locally produced small-press titles.
For the rest, your best bet is the newsagents, particularly the big branches of W H Smith on the high streets of town and city centres. I recently counted about 90 comics titles on the shelves of the central Newcastle branch.
Most will be grouped in a section of children’s comics, which will be immediately recognisable because it is so untidy. Most British comics these days come with some cheap toy or novelty sellotaped, gummed or polybagged to the front, which makes shelving them difficult (and restricts browsing).
But look around the shop too. The three different Doctor Who titles might be in different places - Doctor Who Adventures with the children’s comics, Doctor Who Magazine with film and TV magazines (where you will sometimes find 2000AD and its spin-offs too), Doctor Who Battles in Time with partworks.
Private Eye will normally be shelved with current affairs magazines, and Viz either there or with men’s magazines like Maxim or Loaded.
Update, 6 June: added request for other views, expanded material on Private Eye, added mentions of US comic book reprints and Hunt Emerson.
Update, 7 June: added reference to Toxic.
Next – Part Two: Books (graphic novels, reprint collections, annuals and children’s albums)
Pictures and panels
Paul Gravett and Peter Stanbury Great British Comics: Celebrating a Century of Ripping Yarns and Wizard Wheezes, Aurum Press, 2006; cover shows Korky the Cat by Charles Grigg
Tim Pilcher and Brad Brooks The Essential Guide to World Comics, Collins & Brown/Chrysalis Books, cover by Roger Langridge, 2005
The Beano issue 3383, 2 June 2007, published by D C Thompson. Cover shows Dennis the Menace and Gnasher; interior panel from Minnie the Minx, both drawn by Tom Paterson
The Dandy issue 3417, 2 June 2007, published by D C Thompson, interior panels from Ollie Fliptrick, art by Dixon
2000AD prog 1539, 30 May 2007, published by Rebellion, interior panels from Nikolai Dante “Thieves’ World” part 2 by Robbie Morrison (script), Simon Fraser (art), Gary Caldwell (colours) and Annie Parkhouse (letters)
Viz issue 165, May 2007, published by Dennis Publishing, interior panels from Sting and the Riddle of the Horse’s Arse (uncredited)
Commando issue 4007, May 2007, published by D C Thompson, “Wolf Patrol” (uncredited, reprinted from 1993)
Toxic issue 94, 6 June-19 June 2007, published by Egmont Magazines, interior panels from Team Toxic "Getting to the Bottom of It", art by Lew Stringer
Private Eye issue 1186, 8 June-21 June 2007, Pressdram Limited; strip The Broon-ites drawn by Henry Davies
Spaceship Away issue 7, Autumn 2005, published by Rod Barzilay; interior panels from Journey Into Space episode 1 “Planet of Fear”, written by Charles Chilton, art by Ferdinando Tacconi, reprinted from Express Weekly, 1956