Thursday, 7 June 2007

British Comics: A Quick Guide for Visitors, Part Two

See also Part One: Background and Periodicals

The simplest way to run through the various reprints, trade paperbacks, manga, annuals and other books of comics available in the UK is to take you through an imaginary bookshop. So, imagine that you have just entered a large branch of a major chain like Waterstone’s.

As before, I’d welcome corrections, expansions, and different opinions.

A big comics section may be given over to manga. Almost without exception, these will simply be the US editions from Viz Media, Tokyopop and Dark Horse, whether the originators are from Japan, the US or Germany (though a few US translations are licensed to British publishers like Gollancz and Harper-Collins).

The “almost” allows room for The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga, a 540 page anthology of mostly new (or previously only web-published) material from a large number of creators, mostly, but not exclusively, based in the UK. A volume came out in 2006, edited by Ilya, who I remember as a small-press cartoonist back in the 1980s, and was published by Robinson, who are responsible for a stable of Mammoth Books of Best New prose stories (eg one for SF, one for horror) which are published annually. The hope seems to be that the manga volume will be too.

Incidentally, the term “manga” is being used here very loosely: some of these cartoonists have only microscopic traces of Japanese influence in their bloodstreams.

Graphic Novels
This will probably have a section of a similar size to that for manga, and will contain a mixed bag of material.

There will be a range of US titles from DC, Vertigo, Image and Marvel. But in addition to the US Marvel trade paperbacks, there will also be titles by Panini, who handle Marvel’s European business. These include some unique editions of US material (paperback editions of the Lee/Ditko Spider-Man run in colour, Runaways in full-sized paperbacks), as well as reprints of material originated by Panini and its predecessor Marvel UK.

The latter include Death’s Head, the original Chris Claremont/Herb Trimpe version of Captain Britain from the 1970s, and lots of Doctor Who. My pick of the Doctor Who series would be Dragon’s Claw, featuring Tom Baker’s Doctor. This not only contains page after page of prime Dave Gibbons artwork, but also Mick McMahon’s splendidly quirky “Junkyard Demon”.

US art comics will often be well-represented in this section, sometimes in UK editions by respected mainstream book publisher Jonathan Cape. For example, we got a paperback edition of Alison Bechdel’s Fun House last year (but never did get a hardback edition, that I saw). Cape also publishes work by UK literary comics authors like Bryan Talbot (such as Alice in Sunderland) and Posy Simmonds, as well as Ethel & Ernest, a moving memoir of his parents by Raymond Briggs, best known for his nuclear tragedy When the Wind Blows and his albums for children, such as Fungus the Bogeyman.

But on the whole, the literary or consciously artistic approach is a field in which British comics are lacking, possibly because of the absence of any UK equivalent of Fantagraphics, Top Shelf or Drawn and Quarterly.

If you are lucky, you might also find some of the humorous literary adaptations and collected comics of Hunt Emerson, published by Knockabout Books, on these shelves too. See here for my views on The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

There is also likely to be a fair selection of Rebellion’s 2000AD books. These are either slim albums of recent material, such as Ian Edginton and D’Israeli’s seaborne horror strip Leviathan, or big fat volumes of classic series from the 1970s and 1980s, including Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog and the peerless satire on religious and racial bigotry, Nemesis the Warlock.

Possibly even fatter are the volumes from Carlton Books reprinting war stories from Commando Picture Library.

Titan Books’ various reprint series are available wherever Diamond distributors spreads its tentacles, but are also to be found in bookshops. A highlight is Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s heavily researched and moving series about the Great War, Charley’s War. The best-looking are the reprints of the 1950s SF series Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future. Other reprints from boys’ comics have stalled after one volume each of The Spider (retitled King of Crooks to avoid infringing the copyright of the US pulp character) and The Steel Claw. But an anthology volume called Albion Origins is apparently in the works.

Titan is also compiling two classic newspaper strip adventure series, the adaptations of the James Bond novels, and Peter O’Donnell’s great female adventurer, Modesty Blaise. The latter is now well into Enric Badia Romero’s run as artist, but see if you can track down some of the earlier volumes featuring the strikingly stylish artwork of Jim Holdaway.

The humour section of the bookshop will be where you can find reprints of British newspaper strips as, apart from one or two series based around football (soccer, if you must), they now all embody both meanings of the word “comic”. Humour is too individual for me to lay down the law, so you are best off browsing, but two I’d recommend you take a look at are Charles Peattie and Russell Taylor’s Alex about an amoral, selfish merchant banker, and, above all, Steve Bell’s biting political strip If…,with its brutal, powerful artwork.

The humour section seems also to be where bookshop staff shelve things they don’t know where else to place. Over the last year, I have noticed here a big reprint volume selected from the 1950s girls’ comic Girl (imaginative title, eh?) and a set of imaginary biographies of characters from boys’ sports comic strips.

Children’s books
This is where you will probably find the English language editions of the great Franco-Belgian comics series Asterix and Tintin. These are the only European comics you are likely to find in a British bookshop, unless the graphic novels section has some NBM or First Second translations for the American market. Cinebook has been translating some other classic European comic albums, including the Lucky Luke and Blake and Mortimer series, but I have yet to see these in an ordinary bookshop.

In the autumn, the annuals will start to appear. Most of these are hard-back, extra-long editions of the regular comic periodicals, though there will also be editions devoted solely to popular characters (such as The Bash Street Kids from The Beano), and annuals devoted to currently popular films and TV series that do not necessarily have their own regular comics. Some comics – including 2000AD - do not have associated annuals any more. Look before you buy: not all of these have much, if anything, by way of comic strip content these days. Annuals are aimed at the Christmas market; after Christmas, they can generally be found for a couple of months at greatly reduced prices, and are then taken off sale.

This year, I have noticed for the first time some large format paperbacks labelled as “summer annuals”, but these all seem to be activity books with no comics content.

I’m guessing, but the children’s section may be where the Bumper Book of Look and Learn will turn up. See Steve Holland’s post about it. Look and Learn was a children’s educational magazine, but for our purposes it was also the home of The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire, a magnificent planetary romance painted by Don Lawrence. The one or two collections published years ago now go for a bomb on eBay, and the only current editions are lavish Dutch ones that require a second mortgage to buy. Apparently, the Bumper Book will include a complete Trigan Empire story.

There will also be a wide range of illustrated children’s books, some with comic strip content. Take a look at Terry Deary’s Horrible Histories series, discussed here. Beyond that, I’m not well informed about children’s books. It might be worth having a browse through the “picture books” section, if your preferred definition of “comics” is broad enough.

Finally, don’t leave the bookshop before looking in the art section. You never know what will be shelved there. I’ve seen Robert Crumb and Little Nemo in Slumberland here recently. And you can always buy a book about Hogarth and wallow in his sequential print series.

Comics shops
Comics shop may have some or all of the above, though they tend to be light on children’s books and rarely stock annuals.

Update, 8 June: added a mention of Raymond Briggs and Ethel & Ernest.

Pictures and panels
The Mammoth Book of Best New Manga, edited by Ilya, cover by Neill Cameron, published by Robinson Books, 2006; interior panels from Bulldog: Empire by Jason Cobley and Neill Cameron, and Princess at Midnight by Andi Watson

Doctor Who: Dragon’s Claw, cover by Dave Gibbons, published by Panini Books, 2004; interior panels from Doctor Who “Junkyard Demon” by Steve Parkhouse (writer and letterer), Mike McMahon (pencils), Adolfo Buylla (inks) and Alan McKenzie (editor)

Ethel & Ernest: A True Story by Raymond Briggs, published by Jonathan Cape, 1998 (paperback 2002)

Aliens Ate My Trousers! by Hunt Emerson, published by Knockabout Books, 1998

Leviathan by Ian Edginton (script), D'Israeli (art) and Tom Frame (letters), published by Rebellion, 2006

The Complete Nemesis the Warlock volume 1, cover by Kevin O’Neill, published by Rebellion; interior panels from Nemesis the Warlock Book Three by Pat Mills (writer), Kevin O’Neill (artist) and Steve Potter (letters)

Commando: True Brit, published by Carlton Books, 2006. Cover image downloaded from Carlton Books

Charley's War by Pat Mills (writer) and Joe Colquhoun (artist), published by Titan Books. Cover image downloaded from Titan Books

Dan Dare, Pilot of the Future: The Man from Nowhere, cover and interior panels by Frank Hampson, published by Titan Books, 2007. Cover image downloaded from Titan Books

The Steel Claw: The Vanishing Man, cover by Brian Bolland, published by Titan Books, 2005; interior panels by Ken Bulmer (writer) and Jesús Blasco (artist). Cover image downloaded from Titan Books

Modesty Blaise: The Black Pearl, cover by Jim Holdaway, published by Titan Books, 2004; interior panels from Modesty Blaise “The Killing Ground” by Peter O’Donnell (writer) and Jim Holdaway (artist)Cover image downloaded from Titan Books

If … Marches On by Steve Bell published by Methuen, 2006

The Best of Girl, published by Prion Books, 2006; interior panels from Wendy and Jinx “The New Headmistress”, written by Stephen James, drawn by Peter Kay, and Vicky and the Vengeance of the Incas, written by Betty Roland and drawn by Dudley Pout. Cover image downloaded from Carlton Books

Doctor Who: The Official Annual 2007, published by BBC Books, 2006

The Rise and Fall of the Trigan Empire, art by Don Lawrence, scanned from The Trigan Empire, published by Hamlyn Books, 1978. This panel is probably not from the story to be featured in the Bumper Book of Look and Learn

A Harlot’s Progress plate 2, by William Hogarth, 1732, scanned from Mark Hallett Hogarth, published by Phaidon Books, 2000


Andrew Hickey said...

Good to see someone paying some attention to British comics (however few there are now, sadly). Can't believe you missed out Raymond Briggs though...

Steve Flanagan said...

Excellent point. I'll have to add him in.

Joe said...

Hi, Steve,

Great series, mate, good work. On the Mammoth Book of Best New Manga I heard from Ilya that there is a second one coming this autumn/winter. Not heard many details thus far as he is still finishing it off, but it will be coming out from Constable Robinson again, so perhaps he will get his wish to make it an annual event like their Best SF etc.


Sean Kleefeld said...

Great overview, Steve! Much appreciated by this Yank, to be sure!

Of course, now it looks like I'll have to load up on packing supplies while I'm over there, too, so I can ship back everything by post and not have to try to carry around several hundred pounds of comics! :)

Steve Flanagan said...

That is good news, Joe. The first one was an interesting and diverse anthology.

And thank you for the links from the FPI blog.