Comic book fans celebrate a long and colourful history

The words ‘comic book’ bring for most a fairly specific image to mind. Or rather two specific images: superheroes of the Marvel and DC Comics ilk exploding thrillingly across the page, and cheeky tykes like Dennis the Menace entertaining the kids.

What many may not realise is that the history of comic books in fact stretches back much further and is much more nuanced and colourful than Superman and The Beano. They might also not realise that a diverse and innovative comic book tradition is still very much alive and well in the UK today.

Educating the British public about this currently, is the British Library’s Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK exhibition, running until 19 August. The first job in assembling the show, explains curator of the library’s printed historical sources department Adrian Edwards, was the seemingly simple but slightly knotty task of deciding what a comic actually is.  

The definition arrived at was “sequential art with panels and a story being moved along by both images and words, but also published, so with multiple copies”. The first example of a comic the team found which fitted this definition dates, quite remarkably, back to 1470.

The piece is a block printed Biblia pauperum or ‘bible for the poor’, including words from the Book of Revelations and designed to communicate religious sentiment to the masses. 

“At the same time as Gutenberg and his successors are experimenting with movable type, you’ve got this tradition developing of block book printing – what looks like an older technology but producing wonderful things, some of which are bible stories looking very much like comics,” says Edwards. “You can’t go back much further than that because before that you’ve got manuscripts that aren’t published works.”

Comic publishing activity over the next few centuries involved not just religious texts but political satire too, with William Hogarth – credited in some circles as one of the first pioneers of the modern comic – particularly active in this genre. Most famous are his A Rake’s Progress series, produced as eight canvases and then engraved and published in print form, using copper plate engraving, in 1735.

The period comic books really take off, however, is the early 19th century. Leading the way was The Glasgow Looking Glass, first published in 1825 to satirise the fashions and politics of the times, through an article depicting how the King of France spends his days reclining, dining and playing with his dogs, for example.

Other comics of the time would regularly illustrate and run stories sent in by readers, such as The Graphic’s inclusion in 1889 of ‘The Story of the Girl with 39 Lovers’, a presumably slightly exaggerated tale of a woman’s sea voyage antics.

Revolutionary influence

Spurring this rush of activity were improving literacy rates and the huge lifestyle upheaval brought by the industrial revolution, reports another curator of the British Library exhibition, journalist and life-long comic fan John Dunning. Added to this was the emergence of a visual culture, enabled by more sophisticated printing techniques, but also inspired by the fact many were still only partially literate.

“We’re seeing the beginnings of a very visual culture; we’re starting to see advertising, illustrated material. Because people were now literate but not massively so, the use of imagery was allowing people to be pulled into stories,” reports Dunning.

“All this was related to the industrial revolution. People need news stories and stories more than ever just because they’re working in larger communities. They’re no longer living in rural villages where they know where everything is and how to find everything. They need to navigate and understand their new worlds.”

Early comics proved to be so popular, then, because of the immediacy and simplicity with which they could communicate their message to a still largely only semi-literate population. Putting them together each week or month was, though, no mean feat.

Edwards reports that The Glasgow Looking Glass, later the Northern Looking Glass, only ran for 19 instalments. Though we don’t know for sure, the problem may have been difficulties with working with the new medium of lithography, which the publication was one of the first to use.

“That didn’t last into 1826 and that might have been tied up with the fact they are working with a new printing medium and the economies aren’t really there yet,” says Edwards. 

“To find a periodical completely lithographed like that one in 1825 is very early. Quite a lot of illustrations in the British Library exhibition from the mid 19th century are wood engravings. They’re taking advantage of the industrial revolution, which brought much harder metal tools, and using the hard, against-the-grain part of the wood for these.”

Whether using wood engraving or lithography, producing a comic was arguably the hardest logistical challenge a printer could contend with. (This was a time, it must be remembered, when artwork would have been drawn directly onto litho stones if this method was being used.)

“Quite often the materials are coming from different places – you’ve got both writers and artists working for you,” explains Edwards. “In the early period, it’s all produced by one person, but later you have monthly periodicals and it’s very usual to have a writer and an artist and, in a big commercial company, somebody doing layouts, somebody doing the details, inking lettering – they’re all different people.”

It stands to reason, then, that the widely accepted real heyday of the comic came with the invention of true industrial printing in the 1950s. And this part of the story – involving humorous children’s comics in the interwar and post war period, evolving into more grown-up and politically aware titles such as Warrior, Crisis and 2000AD in the 1980s – is the one people are more familiar with. 

What they may be less familiar with is the fact that the UK comic scene has always been quite distinct from that of the US’s very squeaky-clean, superhero-focused output, and arguably a lot more diverse. 

Though pretty much every genre and subject matter conceivable has been covered by British comics over the years – with the British Library’s Comics Unmasked exhibition spanning anorexia, apartheid, sexual titillation and ventriloquism to name but a few examples – the UK scene has always been strongly characterised by an anti-establishment vibe.

Examples of this in the British Library exhibition include Dr Parsons’ Tony and Me, a satirical childlike depiction of the relationship between Tony Blair and George Bush, supposedly authored by the latter; and graphic novel pioneer Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, sent to every member of the House of Commons to protest against nuclear weapons.

“We decided the show should be about rebellion as there’s something about the British; we’re incredibly good at creating anti-heroes. You had murderers and highwaymen who were the characters the readers were supporting,” explains Dunning.

The theme of the exhibition offers insight, then, into an overriding theme characterising British comics for centuries. The fact that it has been staged at all offers insight into attitudes towards comic books today, explains Dunning. This is in fact the first exhibition on this medium to be held at a cultural institute in the UK, he reports, reflecting the comic’s newfound status of late as a more highly respected, often literary, artistic, form.

“This is the first really large show looking at the medium really seriously,” says Dunning. “That’s game changing and one of the reasons they were ready to do it was, I think, that people have now got the message that comics can be literature and comics can be art.”

“I think that old feeling that they’re just superheroes and just for children has largely worn off,” he adds. “So people are now willing to give them a go in a way they wouldn’t have done even 10 years ago.” 

Rich Hardiman, owner of Oxford-based print firm Comic Printing UK, reports that this is very much reflected by the thriving small press scene making up most comic publishing activity today. “This country has got thousands and thousands of really good creatives, a really thriving small press scene,” he says, reporting that jobs sent to him range from books about wizards in Yorkshire, to an autistic child’s depiction of saving his mother from a zombie invasion, to the popular diary comic form, which, inline with The Graphic and other 19th century comics, portray real episodes from an individual’s life. 

Fresh impetus

Particularly with a genre such as the diary comic, these small, often one-man band, publishers often start off publishing on Wordpress websites, before branching into print, reports Hardiman.

Which gets to the heart of a key reason the form may be now gaining increased traction with the general public. Comics have translated well onto the web because of their immediate, direct nature. Comics, whether printed or on the web, work well in our increasingly fast-paced world for the same reasons, explains Dunning.

“You could look at how much more visual our culture is, how much quicker our culture is – comics have got a unique appeal in that way,” he says. “So perhaps I’ve been out late the night before. I jump onto the train; I’m jumping off and running to the office – so sometimes it’s actually quite hard to read fiction. You’re finding your place again, trying to get back in; whereas comics, because of the visual element, hold your attention very easily and are much easier to concentrate on.”

Hardiman adds that there is still plenty of appetite for the printed comic. “People value having something to hold,” he says.

“There’s no evidence that the emergence of web comics has harmed or diminished appetite for print,” agrees James Chapman, author of British Comics: A Cultural History. “The comic collectors who like to have the physical object will always want to have it in print. I don’t think printed comics will ever disappear.”

So while appetite for the printed comic and for the comic format in general might not be as strong as in the glory days of the 50s, 60s and 70s, it’s showing no signs of disappearing altogether. Buoyed by a legacy of UK comic book production that actually goes back much further than most realise, the UK comic scene looks set to continue in the vein of that set by the satires of Hogarth and The Glasgow Looking Glass, and carried on by the likes of Crisis and Watchmen.

Comics might have historically always been a wonderfully simple, direct way of communicating a message or story. But the story of British comics, past and present, is one not just of amusing diversions. Rather it is one of individual expression, diversity and serious thought. 

Comic printing today: Oxford’s Comic Printing UK

Comic Printing UK is a branch of Pulse Print commercial printers. Pulse was set up initially as a print management company. But business went so well on the comic book side of things that this now accounts for around 60% of the company’s revenue. And it’s revenue from this sideline that’s enabled the company to invest in its own kit: a Komori L 526 sheetfed offset printer and an HP Indigo. 

Lucrative as this kind of work has proved for Comic Printing UK, producing it certainly isn’t straightforward. Owner Rich Hardiman explains that, beyond the large publishing companies producing The Beano and 2000AD, and book publishing comic arms such as that belonging to Virgin Books, most producing comic books today tend to be very small presses, often one-man bands.

What these outfits would like to print, and what’s within their budgets, are often different things, he explains. “There are always financial limitations,” he says. “A lot of people will come along and say ‘can I have spot UV on the cover?’, and you say ‘you can, here’s the price’, and they decide maybe they don’t need spot UV.”

For this reason, courting this kind of work won’t be every printer’s bag. “I know printers who have gone after this kind of work but it requires a very specific approach because of the high cost of acquisition in terms of time,” says Hardiman.

He adds: “There’s a lot of hammering out a quote. There’s a lot of back and forth – you’re talking maybe 20 emails before you even get to a finalised price.”

Hardiman adds that the pre-press side of things can be tricky. “This artwork doesn’t come over very professionally produced. It all looks good but it’s not always technically sound. You have to do probably two or three times the amount of repro.”

Hardiman wouldn’t change his specialism for the world though. “I started the comics as a sideline because I enjoyed them so much and just felt if I looked at one more pizza leaflet I’d go mad!” he says.

“Comic book printing today is so interesting and diverse. You get people working in all different sizes and styles. You get a mix of colour and black and white, you get some really interesting black and white work springing from financial restrictions. It’s just so creative.”

Brief history of British comic books

1735 Hogarth’s A Rake’s Progress is published as a critique of decadent living

1825 The Glasgow Looking Glass is launched as a satirical take on the times

1842 The Illustrated London News, the world’s first illustrated weekly news magazine is founded, fuelling a newfound love of news reporting through pictures and words

1880s The Graphic is established, illustrating readers’ own stories

1884 The first recurring comic character appears in the form of Ally Sloper, a work-shy character, forever scheming to elude his landlord 

1914 Most comics now aimed at children

Late 1930s The Beano and The Dandy are launched by DC Thomson

1950s Comics become heavily censored. British versions of horror comics Tales form the Crypt and The Vault of Horror are printed and sold in back street newsagents 

1954 First UK exhibition of comics is organised, ironically, by a group of mothers concerned about the dangers that comic books might pose

1971 Longest running obscenity trial held against Oz, notorious for featuring, among other ‘obscenities’, Rupert the Bear performing sexual acts

1974 DC Thomson publishes Warlord, marking a return for many publishers to action comics, which were often nonetheless vehicles for political and cultural critique

1980s Graphic novels start to emerge, and cover a whole range of unexpectedly weighty topics

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