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2007-12, 355, 356, Book Reviews, Colin Steele

Book Review- Great British Comics

Great British Comics

by Paul Gravett & Peter Stanbury. (Aurum Press) 192pp. $49·95.

The Age of the Story Tellers. British Popular Fiction Magazines 1880-1950.

by Mike Ashley. (British Library) 320 pages. $120.

Masters of American Comics.

Edited by John Carlin, Paul Karasik and Brian Walker. (Yale University Press) 328pp. $70.


Great British Comics, subtitled ‘Celebrating A Century Of Ripping Yarns & Wizard Wheezes’ is a delightful compendium which combines historical analysis and copious illustrations which will induce much nostalgia.

The origins of the British comedy strip date back to the late nineteenth century, when weekly black and white tabloid publications, such as Funny Folks (1874-1894) and Ally Sloper’s Half Holiday (1884-1923),were popular.

Gravett and Stanbury are conscious that there was no “golden age of comics” then or now. They are equally as enthusiastic about the graphic novels of the 1990s, as Ally Sloper in the 1890s; Film Fun and Radio Fun in the 1940s; Eagle and Girl in the 1950s, Bunty and Romeo in the 1960s; 2000AD in the 1970s and Viz in the 1980s.

The eight profusely illustrated chapters are organized along thematic lines to examine issues such as work and family, education, the class system and adolescent aspirations. In this latter context, the Proud Gallery in London recently celebrated forty years of teenage magazine comic strips.

Esther Addley wrote of this exhibition in The Guardian: “The various girl-orientated titles have a section to themselves, such as DC Thomson’s stable of now-deceased teen girl magazines: Bunty, Romeo, Jackie, Patches, Blue Jeans. For women of a certain age, the names of these magazines are hugely resonant, redolent of spots, heartbreak and batwing jumpers. Forget Heat magazine or MySpace; at its peak, Jackie was selling 1.5M copies every week, a remarkable cultural dominance of a relatively tiny demographic”. Regular comic strips, such as Tamara Drewe in The Guardian by Posy Simmonds, now capture the angst of that grown up generation.

Gravett and Stanbury note previous books on British comics have largely relied for their illustrations on front covers, especially rare “Number Ones”. The first issue of the Dandy comic (1937), for example, recently sold for $55,000 in the UK, while the first issue of the Broons annual sold for $12,000.

They believe “the real power of the medium is in the narrative page itself. You’ll also find original artworks and photographs here …  All designed to show how comics have been a big part of British life”. Another innovation is the crediting of artists, many of whom have never been previously identified. Gravett and Stanbury have made a major contribution to the study of comics and their cultural relevance, while producing a comic book coffee table book par excellence.

If there was no golden age of comics, Mike Ashley certainly believes the years from 1880-1950 were “the golden age of storytelling”. The Age of the Storytellers details the leading magazines from 1880 to 1950, when key fictional characters including Sherlock Holmes , Winnie The Pooh and Bulldog Drummond were published there. Ashley also includes titles which cross reference with Great British Comics, such as The Captain, Chums and The Boy’s Own Paper, with its emphasis on school stories, exploration, war, sport and adventure.

Ashley notes in his introduction: “the functions of the magazines in late Victorian and Edwardian times was exactly equivalent to the later functions of radio and television; it brought storytelling … into the home, and did so in regular packaged ways”. The Strand, perhaps the most influential magazine, managed to survive until 1950, but most of the original magazines disappeared before or during World War 2.

The Strand had rivals and imitators such as Pearson’s Magazine, The Windsor, The Royal, Pall Mall, and The Idler. Ashley, a well regarded researcher of popular culture, provides coverage of 144 titles, 70 with detailed bibliographical references, including locations, frequency of publication and circulation figures. The Age of the Storytellers will be of importance to collectors and bookdealers as well as literary researchers and bibliophiles.

In Britain, comics were often banned and thus became even more attractive! The Sunday Dispatch on February 13, 1949, complained: “Horror has crept into the British nursery. Morals of little girls in plaits and boys with marbles bulging in their pockets are being corrupted by a torrent of indecent coloured magazines that are flooding bookstalls and newsagents.” Ashley quotes The Times of 1871,which cautioned mothers not to let their daughters peruse Charles Read’s corrupting story, ‘ATerrible Temptation’ in Cassell’s Magazine.

British comics, for most of the twentieth century, were usually perceived as family-friendly, even if at times the comic families and their children were somewhat anarchic. In America comics often contained dark undercurrents. Compare Korky the Cat with the US’s Krazy Kat, both in content and intended audiences.

British mid twentieth century comics were, however, often more daring than their American equivalents. The Daily Mirror’s cartoon glamour girl, Jane, took the phrase “comic strip” literally. Her phrase “Give me a break, I can’t find my panties!” led Winston Churchill to dub Jane “Britain’s secret weapon” for troop morale in World War 2. The American version of Jane was considerably sanitised.

Masters of American Comics, another sumptuous publication, provides an authoritative overview of American comics. It had its origins in simultaneous exhibitions held at the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles in 2006. These exhibitions were seen as ground breaking in their presentations of American comic art, with over 900 drawings, newspaper pages, graphic novels and comic books showcasing fifteen major twentieth century American artists.

John Carlin in his 175-page analysis, ‘Art History of 20th Century American Comics’, defines the history of American comics as falling into four distinct periods. The first period from the mid-1900s to mid-1920s was “the period of great experimentation and achievement”. In the second period up to the end of the 1930s, “the format became standardized, and massive popularity gave rise to middlebrow comics”. In the third period from 1940-1960, comic books competed with newspaper strips in terms of popularity and creativity. The fourth period began with the publication of independent comics from the mid 1960s and has witnessed the graphic novel boom.

Carlin’s overview is supplemented by individual assessments of key artists, such as Jules Feiffer on Popeye creator E C Segar, Jonathan Safran Foer on Art Spiegelman, and J Hoberman on MAD founder Harvey Kurtzman. Carlin and his colleagues, like Ashley and Gravett and Stanbury provide rich source material which is both historically and aesthetically pleasing.

Colin Steele     (Originally published in the Canberra Times)



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