Delving deep into the rich history of British comics Getintothis’ Kieran Donnachie goes the extra mile tracing their roots from the 70’s and a long lasting legacy.
You may not have noticed, but comic books are pretty big. Your local cinema, independent or otherwise, is dominated by superheroes. Some of your favourite TV is adapted from comics and you may not even know it. When it’s a big publisher, Marvel or DC, you’ll see the logo plastered everywhere.
But the lesser known, Image and Vertigo mostly, are turning the unaware consumers into comic book fans. What started as Saturday morning cartoons, is becoming adult entertainment full of all kinds of body fluids. However everyone is playing catch up. Comics gained their edge in the 70’s when a few tired art and script droids got sick of creating propaganda for kids and started 2000 AD, the galaxy’s greatest comic.
The eldest among you will remember comics like Eagle, Action, Bunty, Mandy. Safe, homely, patriotic. Soldiers fighting Nazis and Communists, space captains fighting evil aliens, girls dreaming about boys and doing little else. In 1975, 2000 AD came about from what was essentially a cash grab on the then current wave of science fiction in cinema and likely would have been more Flash Gordon-esque space adventures if were not for Pat Mills, the man asked to develop.
The anti-authority ethos and anarchic tendencies of punk that was infecting Britain’s youth was reflected in the comics very first pages. On the surface level it was still a comic for boys, just turned up to 11. Yet the stories and characters dripped with satire, none too subtle allusions to politics and society were slipped in between the ultra-violence. Bleak and blood smeared futures filled the pages. Fascist governments and greedy, corrupt organisations starred as the real villains of the strips inside. This new breed of story captivated readers, but not the publishers.
Aside from giving comics a shot of adrenaline, 2000 AD did a lot for the writers, artists and the oft-forgotten letterers. Each strip in a 2000 AD prog had a little badge naming each contributor, something never done before. In the publisher’s eyes, this attributed ownership which they were unwilling to give to any writers or artists. The characters and story lines belong to the company and the company alone. While even at 2000 AD this was still sadly the case, credit was given where credit was due and fans were allowed to see the talent behind their favourite strip.
The comic quickly became popular, it’s edgier and politically bent stories attracting readers across age groups. It wasn’t long before the American industry twigged that this was the new direction necessary for all comics to adapt. The tonal shift happened throughout the late 70’s and 80’s as the up and coming voices within comics were poached left and right from 2000 AD. Many of the critically acclaimed creators like Neil Gaiman, Alan Moore, Garth Ennis, Grant Morrison, had gotten their start at 2000 AD. It was soon clear 2000 AD was being treated as a training ground for what was soon called the British invasion of the American comic book.
The true potential for many of the British writers and artists wasn’t truly realised until the strictly adult imprints, such as Vertigo Comics, were created. Until then most adult comics had been sidelined by the Comics Code Authority. Crime and horror stories were practically annihilated when the CCA was formed in 1954, forcing publishers to drop anything with remotely adult themes or images. The CCA had a tight grip on publishers and distribution, so comics failing to meet the strict guidelines would hardly see the light of day.
An underground comic, or ‘comix’, scene was the most immediate answer to this. As time went on and culture changed, the CCA began to loosen the guidelines and as alternative distributions came about the axe over the industry’s neck slowly lifted. The new imprints were the big publishers attempts to subvert fully the CCA. Vertigo Comics especially housed many fan favourites like Swamp Thing and Sandman, well regarded titles in the literature world as a whole.
It was within Vertigo that my personal tastes found a home, pulpy stories with unlikely heart and soul. On the top of the pile is Hellblazer which follows the exploits of John Constantine, a Scouse con man-cum-magician. Originally appearing in Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing run, at the express desire of artists Stephen Bissette and John Totleben to draw Sting as a character. Hellblazer was my gateway drug into darker or more biting satire series, like Preacher and Transmetropolitan, and I slowly began to realising the flapping capes and chest emblems weren’t all that bad. There’s still some interesting writing to be found within the superhero genre, with easy touchstones being Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.
The trouble is the big tent-pole characters you see dashing about on the big screen have hundreds, if not thousands, of stories stacked up behind them. It’s a daunting prospect if you wish to start at the beginning, equally so if you simply jump in the deep end. The movies are a great entry point, condensing their long histories into 90 minutes of family fun. Sadly this brings back the problem of censorship. While it’s not an enforced one, if studios wish to hit those big profit margins (and they certainly do) 12A or PG13 is about the furthest they’ll go.
From cult classics like The Crow and Darkman to the more popular Blade series or Watchmen, it hasn’t always been about marketing to younger audiences. Throughout the history of the comic book movie you’ll find R Rated films, or more likely 15 here in depraved Britain, peppered throughout. When Sam Raimi’s Spider Man, a break from his video nasty reputation, became a huge success that warranted multiple sequels, studios saw the money piling up and here we are at the 100th Iron Man movie.
There has been a move to more mature stories, a reflection of comics journey over the years. While the big producers and studios are a little late to the party, they’re still managing to cash in. Marvel are outsourcing to Netflix for their adult takes; DC is rebooting for its own cinematic universe which is as dark and murky as a stagnant puddle. As someone with a little knowledge of characters available, Superman and the Justice League lot have been pulling scowls and pondering morals for a good few years. However to moviegoers, it’s a bit odd to see the cheesy superheroes running about with bloody fists.
It’s left many a parent scratching their head when the new comic book flick has a 15 slapped on it, but it’s a change for the good. Literature has long been a goldmine for Hollywood and television. Producers and filmgoers alike have Britain to thank that comics can attract such a wide audience. I just wish they’d stop messing up my favourites.