Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Take the Hyacinth Challenge

Dick Hyacinth is paying for the five-minute argument, and who am I to quibble? (Yeah, I know he says it’s a fake, but let’s try it and see.)

Says Dick, “Newspaper strips set back the comics industry/medium 50 years: Because they were so much more prestigious and lucrative than comic books, the most talented cartoonists gravitated towards newspapers rather than comic books. Newspaper strips are an excellent format with many advantages, but there are limits to what one can achieve in three or four panels. Furthermore, newspapers made comics a wildly popular form of art in the United States, but also conditioned the public to think of comics as disposable. Comics as a medium and an industry would have been better off if left to struggle in the comic book format. Such a Darwinian landscape would have forced cartoonists to produce more ambitious material sooner.”

Now it is rare that history provides perfect counter-examples, but in the case of anglophone comics, the British and American experiences are pretty much mirror images.

In the USA, comic strips first proliferated in the newspapers in the 1890s. It wasn’t until the 1930s that separately published and sold comic books became commonplace. In the UK, comics as separate publications took off in the 1880s, but it wasn’t until the 1920s that comic strips started appearing in newspapers. In Britain, comic strips appear in a handful of national newspapers, there are no syndicates to allow anyone to make a living by selling strips to local papers, and the newspaper comic strip is just too small to syphon off talent on a large scale.

So, if the Hyacinth hypothesis holds, Britain should have been the home to more ambitious comics material earlier than the US. Not so. Apart from a few imitators of the US undergrounds, it wasn’t until the 2000AD generation grew up in the 1980s that Britain started producing artistically ambitious comics, with the possible exceptions of the works of Raymond Briggs, who never worked in either periodical comics or newspapers, and Posy Simmonds, who has since been able to use newspaper serialisation as the basis for ambitious and complex works such as Tamara Drewe.

So Dick needs to look elsewhere for reasons why American comics were held back relative to bandes dessinées and manga. My own preferred culprit is the Comics Code Authority. In the 1950s, EC and some others were providing a generation which had spent World War Two reading The Boy Commandos and learning from Will Eisner how to repair Jeeps with comics which could have broken through into more adult and ambitious forms. But America took a collective political decision not to go down that route.

Of course, you could argue with that.

The Adventures of Mr Stanley Deadstone and Company art by Tom Browne, from The Halfpenny Comic, issue 1, 22 January 1898, reprinted in Denis Gifford Victorian Comics, George Allen & Unwin Ltd, 1976


Swinebread said...

the Comics Code Authority. that's what I would say too

Katherine said...

Huh, amusing. You and I appear to have made essentially the same argument completely independently of each other. I think that makes it even more plausible, don't you?

Steve Flanagan said...

Ah, Katherine, but is that a case of "great minds think alike", or of "fools seldom differ"?