Published on June 26th, 2014 | by Martin Aston1
Just as various comic favourites, from Spider-Man to Transformers, are making headlines because a consumer group has criticised their use in the promotion of unhealthy food to children, it’s timely that BBC4 are this week celebrating the positive impact that comics have made on most every kid’s life – and on more adults than care to admit it.
Over three parts, Comics Britannia explores the history of comics on this side of the pond, from pre-war origins in Scotland, through the post-war glut of boys’ and girls’ adventure comics to the present phenomenon of the ‘graphic novel’ – ‘adult comics’ in laymen’s terms, or “’big expensive comics’ as I’d call them”, says reluctant graphic-novel hero Alan Moore.
It’s commonly held in Comicworld that the adult comic boom was kickstarted in 1986 by two epics – from America, Frank Miller’s revisionist Batman saga DarkKnight, and from Northamptonshire, Watchmen, written by Moore. In his hands, super-heroes were flawed, realistic characters rather than one-dimensional do-gooders; they have breakdowns, suffer from complexes, they get old and fat and don’t fit their costumes anymore.
In the last decade, Moore has seen three of his stories, V For Vendetta, From Hell and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, turned into films, with the long-awaited Watchmen expected to be next. But long before Hollywood, there was…Dundee, specifically publishers DC Thompson, which launched the Dandy in 1937 and the Beano a year later.
“They were part of everyday working-class life, like rickets – everybody had them!” says Moore, now 54. Who can forget Desperate Dan, Minnie the Minx and the Bash Street Kids, anarchically running amok among exasperated grown-ups? By comparison, Moore claims, The Eagle, launched in 1950 by the Reverend Marcus Morris (followed by its sister title Girl), was a moral crusade lapped up by the middle classes. Few remember that The Eagle’s flagship character, space pilot Dan Dare, began ‘life’ as a chaplain.
From early on, Moore was copying comic characters, “even more so once I discovered American super hero comics like Batman in around 1960. As much as I enjoyed the Dandy and Beano, they were a bit of a busman’s holiday. With American comics, your imagination didn’t have to be restricted to schoolrooms and football heroes. You could imagine travelling in time, or having a mermaid for a girlfriend.”
Subsequent British comics such as Pow! replicated the outlandish plots of its American antecedents, but we truly came into our own in the seventies with 2000AD (where Judge Dredd began), Deadline and Warrior, where Moore (who was now only writing) made his mark with V For Vendetta.
V was a shadowy freedom fighter who used terrorist tactics to fight a totalitarian society in a near-future world. In other words, anarchy in the UK ruled again. “With V, I was well aware Britain has a long-established tradition of making heroes out of criminals, like the Steel Claw, so, yes, there’s a direction connection between V and, say, Dennis the Menace. It’s tradition that’s almost unheard of in America.”
Heroes, TV’s first ‘super-hero’ drama, has bucked that trend. Not that Moore has watched it – or any film adaptation of his work. “I’ve come to despise how the comics industry has become a pumpkin patch for movie franchises,” he fumes. “Take the new Spider Man. The original, drawn by Steve Ditko, was this fantastic creature that flowed through all these forms like a Henry Ford sculpture. It exploded in your mind, like, ’what if I could do that?’ To see it realised as an expensive CGI effect robs it of all charm and imagination. Most entertainment now is passive. For me, the comic is the superior art form.”