Almost six years ago, I packed up my life in tropical Hawaii to get my MA in England and try to start over on the other side of the world. I now live in a small city in the east of England about 115 miles northeast of London, where the tea is good and the weather is less so.
The last several years have been full of adjustments to the finer points of English culture, such as the sanctity of standing in line for everything, extreme self-consciousness with regard to public dancing, and the perception of comics.
Although I grew into full-fledged comics fandom in England, the comics experience I grew up with was distinctly American (and a bit Japanese; due to its relative proximity to Japan and large Japanese-ethnic population, a lot of comics culture in Hawaii is actually based around manga) and superheroic.
I grew up in the late 80s – early 2000s, when superheroes were beginning to take over TV and film. The premieres of Batman: The Animated Series, Batman Returns, and the X-Men animated series coincided with my burgeoning awareness of pop culture, and in 90s America comics just seemed to be a constant cultural presence. It was the era of Image, WildStorm, and for a brief, strange moment, the Amalgam Universe; even the Knightfall story arc from Batman was novelized for children. That’s not to say that comics were part of the mainstream culture, but their influence was certainly visible.
By the time I was an adult, I was aware of America’s two big conventions – SDCC and Dragon*Con – as well as the smaller ones throughout the country. Conventions in America have been running for decades; some old issues of Detective Comics from the 80s contain ads for comic conventions in various cities.
In England, comics subculture is a lot less visible, or at least less organized, than it is in the US. London has its share of comics events (you can find almost anything you want in London), and various cities around the UK have been organizing conventions and festivals for a good few years now. However, these often tend to be smallish affairs, and several areas – among them Northampton, hometown of Alan Moore, and the Lake District up North – are holding their first conventions later this year. That’s right: the comics fanbase in some areas has just now gotten big enough or vocal enough to warrant a convention.
In addition to being everywhere, the comics I grew up with were sincere. Many adjectives can be attached to Liefeld’s work, but “self-aware” isn’t one of them; this work was meant to be taken at face value. One of the first comics I read was an issue of The Batman Adventures, the spin-off from Batman: The Animated Series which retained the show’s distinctive art style and interpretation of what being a superhero entailed. Superheroes might have their dark times, but ultimately their goals were to save the world and help those who needed it. You didn’t even need rooftops and spandex to do superheroic acts; in his civilian identity, Bruce Wayne donated large sums of money to Gotham’s many charities. This tone was also present in the Alan Grant/Norm Breyfogle run on Shadow of the Bat and Detective Comics, during which Bruce Wayne offered to fund underprivileged children’s education and Batman tried to talk street kids out of joining a gang. (Grant is Scottish, which may have helped to make his writing compatible with an American approach to superheroes. More on that later.) The superheroism I read about came from a sincere, altruistic mindset, which doesn’t play so well in England.
In fact, England seems to have a particular disdain for superheroes. This is probably due in part to their association with American culture, or in other words, a threat to a traditional way of life. You would not believe how uptight some people over here become when they perceive Americanisms in their English – such as when their teenage children describe a band as “awesome”, or when a coffee shop customer asks if he can get a latte; apparently it should be “May I have a latte?” Admittedly, this attitude is more common among older people who remember life before globalization – my British fiancé wasn’t aware that there was anything wrong with “Can I get…?”.
More problematic in England are the messages of power and success that superheroes convey by their very existence: messages which are perceived as fine for children – think Doctor Who – but too simplistic for adults. In terms of comics, this means that only independent graphic novels such as Maus or Persepolis (or, at a push, the work of Alan Moore) are worthy of serious discussion. Superheroes are still for plebs and pitiable losers. Last month, I attended a conference on comics and graphic novels in Glasgow; one of the keynote speakers, who is based in England, recalled a BBC radio interview in which the interviewer said that listeners probably associated comics with “[their]teenage cousin Kevin with the hygiene problem”.
There seems to be a trend in English media towards the glorification of failure and embarrassment, epitomized in sitcoms such as The Office or Peep Show. The humor of these shows doesn’t come from watching beloved characters get into hilarious scrapes and sympathizing even as you laugh (e.g. Frasier); it comes from watching deeply flawed characters – whom you laugh at rather than with – get beaten down by life and their own shortcomings over and over and over again. These are universes in which no one is allowed to be happy.
How can women and men with the ability to fly, run faster than the speed of light, or read minds exist in this hope-vacuum?
Answer: they can’t. Not without suffering for their abilities. Look at Watchmen and Miracleman/Marvelman: both intricate, troubling, heartbreaking, and groundbreaking meditations arriving at the conclusion that superheroes are at best unable to relate to others and at worst severely dysfunctional individuals. As with the “can I get”/”may I have” controversy, this may be more a feature of the generation before ours, but creators from this age bracket set the tone of English-made comics for my generation.
This isn’t to say that English creators only make depressing comics. Kieron Gillen’s Young Avengers is the most exuberant comic I’ve read in the past several years. The tone of this comic may owe something to the fact that Gillen is a former gaming writer for various websites and magazines, and has thus been part of contemporary global culture in a professional capacity for some time. As a result, he’s better placed than Moore or other English creators who came of age before globalization to write about superheroes who are admirable and sympathetic and enjoy being superheroes.
However, even Gillen isn’t immune from the darkness that pervades the work of Moore et al. His debut comic, Phonogram – which he created with English artist and Young Avengers penciller Jamie McKelvie – deals with themes of disillusionment with post-Britpop music and Britain in general, 21st-century isolation, and the sinister undertones of nostalgia.
If that all sounds rather bleak, it’s because I like to get bad news out of the way as soon as possible and burst any bubbles of Anglophilia that may be hanging around. Living in England actually has many advantages for a comics fan.
First, it’s much cheaper to get to events around the UK than it is in the US. Taking trains is much easier on the wallet than a transcontinental flight.
The relative newness of comics culture means that the no-girls-allowed mentality that often surrounds comics in America hasn’t had so much time to take root here. My local comic shop is a friendly place where the employees are always happy to chat to anybody –regardless of gender – about their favorite titles. One of the employees there is female (they only have a few employees), which demonstrates that women are welcome on both sides of the counter.
Additionally, I’ve gained a greater understanding of British-made comics from the 80s, such as V for Vendetta and early Hellblazer. Living here illuminates the history and politics that shaped these comics in a way that research on its own couldn’t.
Growing up in the US, I’d barely learned anything about Margaret Thatcher or her legacy. Much was made of the fact that she was the UK’s first female Prime Minister, and on this basis she was often portrayed as admirable: a woman in a man’s world.
As I spent more time in England, however, I learned that Thatcher’s government had closed down mines across the UK with no alternative employment for their workers, which economically destroyed entire communities throughout Wales, Scotland and the North of England. When miners went on strike between 1984-1985, there were reports of strikers being hit with police truncheons.
I learned that after riots in 1981, Liverpool narrowly escaped being left in “managed decline”; had this gone through, residents would have been evacuated and government funding for the city would have been cut off.
I learned about Section 28 legislation, which stated that local authorities could not “intentionally promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”, or “promote the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship”.
And I learned about the Community Charge or poll tax, which taxed UK residents at a flat per capita rate rather than an income-based rate and therefore placed a greater burden on the poorer sections of society. There were protests and riots against the tax from those who considered it unfair and/or felt they were unable to pay. As taxpayers were identified by electoral registers, many people removed themselves from these registers in attempts to avoid paying poll tax.
I saw the spectacular outpouring of vitriol around the UK following her death: there were “death parties” in England and Scotland; “Ding Dong the Witch Is Dead” made it to #1 on the charts; in a retrospective of Thatcher’s life on Scottish TV, a newsreader said, “She will not be mourned” live on air.
Suddenly, the anger of comics like Hellblazer made sense.
Hellblazer’s origins are entirely shaped by the prioritization of the rich over the less well off and the general turmoil that characterized the Thatcher years. In the first story arc, for instance, John Constantine battles a physical manifestation of greed that causes people to eat themselves to death. In a not very subtle later issue, he stumbles into a bar full of Young Conservative yuppies who turn out to be demons. John himself embodies 80s British decline: he comes from Liverpool and is the former front man of a disbanded rock band in the days after punk.
I’ve also come to realize that British-made comics from that era were responding not only to current events, but to the specter of World War II.
In British media produced for the post-WWII generation – 70s and early 80s kids – there seems to have been a preoccupation with reminding people that the war happened and that Hitler was a bad person. 1970s sci-fi TV show The Tomorrow People featured a detailed reminder of exactly why people shouldn’t wear SS uniforms to a costume party, and a long-running sitcom, Dad’s Army, was created around members of the Home Guard (men who were too old or physically ineligible for the draft). These are shows that I wouldn’t have seen if I’d stayed in America.
V for Vendetta is very much a product of this mentality. Although it responds to the climate of fear and disillusionment of the Thatcher years, it also clings to England’s WWII past. The “V” in the title suggests the V-sign for victory, as displayed by Winston Churchill in a well-known photograph. Moore makes this association clear in his introduction to Issue #1, which ends: “Goodnight England. Goodnight Home Service and V for Victory. Hello the Voice of Fate and V for Vendetta.” However, this is an England where the villains are in charge: the government in V for Vendetta is literally fascist and “believe[s]in…the destiny of the Nordic race”. In other words, the bad guys from WWII – against whom England’s confidence and sense of rightness was defined – have won and are now running the country.
Even Judge Dredd, in its earlier decades, participates in this rehashing of history. Sometimes this produces unfortunate results, such as a 1985 story arc in which Dredd continually refers to an Asian antagonist as “Tojo” and fights resurrected samurai whom he refers to as “nine-foot N*ps”; one issue’s cover even contained the phrase “Jap Trap” and speculated that Dredd might be for “the Chop-Chop”. Again, this was in 1985. Other times the results are much more enjoyable. An early issue sees Dredd comparing an evil robot to Hitler – thus reminding the readers that Hitler existed and was evil – to which the robot responds, “Yes! I’m a big fan of Hitler!” Then Dredd punches the robot, as you do, and they fight.
Speaking of Dredd, living here has allowed me to understand the ways in which Judge Dredd’s overall approach to world-building is thoroughly British, despite its American setting. British people nowadays often complain about “the nanny state” or “Health and Safety gone mad”, and much of what is prohibited in Mega-City One is classified as such on the basis of protecting citizens’ health to a satirical degree. Smoking, for example, is illegal except in designated “smokatoriums”, while sugar has roughly the same social status as cocaine and is described as contraband “white powder”. In an amazing meta-echo of cultural panic about the suitability of comics for young people, Dredd goes after a comics dealing ring (comics have been outlawed in Mega-City One) and busts them for possession of a copy of 2000AD – the anthology magazine in which Judge Dredd is published.
In fact, the degree to which daily life is regulated in Mega-City One is only possible in a state with strong centralized governmental control over its citizens – in other words, a state more Socialist than capitalist, or more British than American. City or county governments in Britain don’t have nearly as much freedom to enact laws as American state governments do. Gun ownership laws and the age of consent, for example, are the same everywhere in Britain.
But Judge Dredd stands out from the English conception of superheroes due to his comic’s underlying assumption that he is always in the right. His methods are presented as unquestionable, in that anyone who questions them turns out to be wrong at best and traitorous at worst.
This may be related to the fact that some of Judge Dredd’s primary writers are Scottish, such as his co-creator John Wagner and Alan Grant, whom I mentioned earlier. Unlike England, Scotland’s attitude toward comics is fairly compatible with America’s, especially in Dundee and Glasgow; Grant Morrison has stated that Scotland sympathizes with the old-school “swagger” of America and its superheroes, as it jibes with Scotland’s self-image as the underdog/“Highland warrior”.
The city of Dundee is home to DC Thomson – publisher of several long-running British children’s comics such as the Beano and the now-defunct Dandy – and a big statue of Desperate Dan, one of the Dandy’s main characters. What’s interesting about this statue is that there is no plaque or anything else to tell you who he is and why he’s important; the implicit assumption is that you would already know. The University of Dundee also hosts the UK’s only Comics Studies degree, as well as a Comics Day of lectures, discussions and more from professional writers and artists.
With regard to Glasgow, I could reel off a list of names that includes Grant Morrison, Frank Quitely, Eddie Campbell, Gary Erskine, and Metaphrog. I could also mention that many of my comics-reading friends in the UK are based in or near Glasgow. Additionally, I could detail how welcoming Glasgow was during the previously mentioned conference about comics and graphic novels that I attended last month. On the first night, we were invited to a reception in the university’s art gallery, where we were given free wine and the opportunity to peruse some truly fine paintings. We were then invited to a reception in the Council’s gorgeous City Chambers, where the Baillie gave a speech that mentioned the cultural significance of “superheroes and antiheroes” and we were given more free wine. Basically, Glasgow was rewarding us for talking about comics – and not just the big-name graphic novels such as Maus, but the maligned-in-England “superheroes” of more popular titles. (By comparison, the organizers had previously approached Oxford about hosting a conference and heard nothing back from the university or anyone else, despite the fact that Oxford is home to the excellent children’s comic The Phoenix.)
I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t occasionally considered making a break for Scotland or back to America; it’d be nice to talk about comics to other people without having to justify their cultural and artistic relevance.
However, justifying comics has encouraged me to reexamine what I like about them and reanalyze works I thought I’d already figured out, and having access to a multinational perspective has opened up the world of comics in a way that I wouldn’t be able to experience if I’d stayed in the US or if I’d been born and raised in England. I also get to travel to events around the UK and meet other people who love comics even more than me.
Like settling into daily English life, figuring out where comics fit into England’s complex social and historical networks is an ongoing process – and I look forward to finding out what I’m going to learn next.