Saturday, 1 September 2007

Before Comics Britannia

Anyone with a specialist interest must have mixed feelings when the mass media turn their attention to it: however welcome the exposure might be, the risk of misrepresentation and mockery is high.

The BBC has now filled out most of the web-pages on the site supporting the upcoming BBC4 series Comics Britannia (thanks to the FPI blog for pointing this out).

Taking those pages with the fuller descriptions of what is in each of the three parts posted by Lew Stringer on his Blimey! It’s Another Blog About Comics, and with the review Rich Johnston wrote for his Lying in the Gutters column, based on preview discs, it would seem that the BBC has actually produced an accurate and balanced series of programmes about British comics, which is not something I’d ever have expected. I’m very much looking forward to the broadcasts.

But I still think it’s a pity that, like Keith Robson’s exhibition at the Museum of Hartlepool, the BBC has chosen to start with the publication of The Dandy in 1937 (though the captions to some of the gallery images, such as the note about Dudley Watkins’s artistic debt to Tom Browne, do lend some reassurance that earlier material will not be entirely written out of history).

I can understand why this is a tempting starting-point for a TV programme aimed at a general audience: mention The Dandy and The Beano to anyone under the age of 80, and you’ll provoke instant nostalgia. Mention Comic Cuts and Illustrated Chips and you’ll get blank looks. But it seems to me that a series about British comics should attempt to consider the ways in which the British variety is distinct from those in other countries, and some significant distinctions had already taken form by the 1930s. Of course, each of these is shared with some other countries: it’s the combination which creates the unique flavour.

Short, weekly anthology formats were already the norm. This would mean that British comics would continue to concentrate on stories that could be told in one or two pages, or in one or two page instalments, unlike the longer formats favoured in the USA or Japan. Collected reprints would allow European comics, which also favoured short anthologies, to break out of this restraint, but that did not happen in Britain.

Comics were wholly for children. The older line of comics for adults, such as Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday was dead. Unlike Japan or Belgium and France, an adult readership for mass market British comics would not emerge in the post-World War Two years. The contrast with other countries would be even stronger if the growing adult readership of comics in the USA had not been nipped in the bud by the creation of the Comics Code Authority.

Comics based on other media were common. They dated back at least as far as Dan Leno’s Comic Journal of 1898, and their place in the market had been cemented by the success of Film Fun and its imitators in the 1920s. Now they make up the majority of periodicals published for children. Apart from the success of Disney, I don’t think this has been true in other major comic-producing countries, where it has, if anything, been more common for other media to borrow from comics (US television and film; Japanese anime) than vice-versa.

Common themes, stereotypes and tropes were already in place. For example, it was common for humour strips to feature people of low status (such as children or tramps) opposed to authority: contrast The Bash Street Kids, where the children of Class 2B are in conflict with Teacher, with Archie, where the pupils of Riverdale High are mostly in conflict with each other.

It may be that Comics Britannia will fill in some of this backstory once it has got viewers’ attention with more familiar comics. Whatever, when it comes to what is actually in the documentaries rather than what is not, I feel a lot less apprehensive than I did when the series was announced.

Front page of Film Fun issue 254, artist and writer uncredited, Amalgamated Press, 22 November 1924, reprinted in Alan and Laurel Clark Comics: An Illustrated History, Green Wood Publishing, 1991

1 comment:

Kaya Özkaracalar said...

Hi. You might like to know that some of the comics in FILM FUN apparently made their way all the way to in Turkey in the 1930s. Your scan helped me in confirming this connection, thnx. You can view the Turkish edition(s?)at my own blog (where I give a credit to your blog):