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Sunday, September 09, 2007

Comics Britannia reviewed

This week sees the start of the much anticipated BBC documentary series on British comics, kicking off tomorrow night (Monday 10th September) at 9.00pm on BBC Four. The BBC have kindly sent me disks of all three documentaries in the series to review...

Just to get the negative points out of the way first, what should be made clear is that Comics Britannia is not a detailed history of British comics. Much has been left out, including, quite bizarrely, the first 60 years of British comics history. There's no mention of Comic Cuts, Illustrated Chips, Film Fun, or any of the other many successful long running comics of the Victorian / Edwardian eras and this unfortunately leads to some distortion of the facts. Whilst I appreciate that a condensed version of history was necessary for time limitations it does seem odd to totally ignore the very comics which originated the themes which this series celebrates. Comics Britannia focuses heavily (and quite rightly) upon the essences of British comics - slapstick, championing the underdog, cynical attitudes to authority figures, - but it was the Victorian and Edwardian comics which set the template.

Instead, the series kicks off with the launch of The Dandy in 1937. Whilst it's true that this comic did herald a new, robust, modern style for the times, it's given a little too much credit with the claim that The Dandy led an innovation in speech balloons and that all comics before it only had text beneath each panel. (In truth, speech balloons appeared in British comics long before The Dandy, and Dandy itself featured some strips with text captions and no balloons for many years, so the boast is quite misleading.)

Okay, that's the downside out of the way. You'll be pleased to hear that, those aspects aside, everything picks up and the documentaries offer many rewarding moments.

The first programme, The Fun Factory, is basically a history lesson about the peak years of The Dandy and The Beano. Impressively, it focuses on the artists that made the comics great - specifically Dudley Watkins, David Law, Leo Baxendale and Ken Reid. It's very satisfying to see these four gents given the respect they deserve, and the camera pans over many pages of their artwork, including some original pages where the ink-lines (and still-visible un-erased pencils) really convey the joy and sheer quality of their work.

Of those four creators, only Leo Baxendale survives today and it's a pleasure to see him interviewed at length on screen talking about the 1950s origins of Little Plum, Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids. (The Little Plum strip which features in one sequence - a funny set about Plum buying a car, - is featured in full in this year's Dandy/Beano hardback The Beano and The Dandy: Crazy About Creatures.)

Although Ken Reid passed away in the 1980s, his son is interviewed and sadly reveals that Ken drove himself to a nervous breakdown in the early 1960s with the intensity of his work. Ken's Jonah strip from The Beano is showcased, as is Frankie Stein as the programme enters the mid-sixties with a few minutes dedicated to Odhams' Wham! weekly. There's also a mention of Whizzer and Chips with a brief appearance by former IPC humour group editor Bob Paynter, but unfortunately the entire IPC humour output of the 1970s onwards is rather casually dismissed. Whilst it's true that much of the material in those comics was just fodder by Baxendale-style "ghost artists" there was a lot of distinctive work by the likes of Cliff Browne, Jack Oliver, Ian Knox and others that is simply ignored. However, the core of the series is to concentrate firmly on "A-list" creators and keeping the casual viewer involved. Therefore it's perhaps understandable that there's no time to stray off to wax nostalgic about comics that were entertaining but which didn't shake up the industry.

The second programme, Boys & Girls (airing on BBC Four on Monday 17th September at 9.00pm) spotlights adventure comics. It begins with the advent of Eagle in 1950 and features some interesting archive material of Frank Hampson at work in his studio. It tells the now well known origin of the comic, of how the Rev. Marcus Morris had the idea of a wholesome comic to rival the imported "horror comics" from America, (even though the horror comics shown are actually from a few years after Eagle was launched) and focuses on the lead character Dan Dare. Don Harley, (who still draws Dan Dare today for Spaceship Away comic) is one of the relevant people interviewed.

The episode then goes on to feature Girl (the Eagle for schoolgirls) and other girls' titles such as School Friend and Bunty with recollections from people such as cartoonist Posy Simmons and children's book author Jaqueline Wilson who were readers at the time. (We're reliably informed by Ms.Wilson that the hugely popular Jackie comic magazine was named after her, when she was on the staff at DC Thomson back in 1964 when it was launched.)

What all of these documentaries do so well is to put the comics into the context of their historical and sociological environment. (How the imagery of the "slap up feed" was an enviable reward in days of rationing for example.) In another instance it's explained how the girls' comics promoted domesticity and more emotional content whilst the boys' comics favoured action-based stories. Looking at the main themes of war and football in boys' comics, Valiant (solely represented by Captain Hurricane) is mentioned, as are the Commando comics. Roy of the Rovers is the inevitable choice to represent sports comic strips.

Moving into the 1970s the changes in society inspired IPC Magazines to try a tougher breed of comic. Not with the boys' line as might be expected, but with the girls' weekly Tammy in 1971. There, the emotional trauma of characters in strips such as the luridly titled Slaves of War Orphan Farm had an edge that Bunty or June had lacked. This period also gave birth to the boys' comic Battle of course, and anti-war strip Charley's War is given good coverage in the programme, with an interview with writer Pat Mills.

This growing realism in British comics smoothly leads into the third and final programme in the series, Anarchy in the UK (BBC Four, Monday 24th September 9.00pm) which deals with British comics for the older reader. The theme being that comics are "growing up" and reaching a new, adult audience. (Again, if the early history of British comics had been included it would have been evident that the first British comics were aimed at adults, but instead we're led to believe this is a relatively new direction.)

Starting with the origins of Viz, the programme interviews the comics co-creators Chris and Simon Donald. In recent years Simon has become something of a regular on "talking heads" documentaries such as these so it's good to see him given the opportunity to talk about his own work.

The IPC boys' weekly Action is featured next, along with the "moral panic" caused by the violent storylines featuring its anti-hero characters. 2000 AD is also featured, with contributions from Kevin O'Neill, Pat Mills, Alan Grant, and Carlos Ezquerra. (Kev O'Neill turns up a lot in Comics Britannia, always with interesting and relevant recollections, but apart from a League of Extraordinary Gentlemen cover none of his artwork is shown unfortunately.)

Developing the theme of British comics becoming more mature and socially relevant, the programme then features Alan Moore, particularly his work on V for Vendetta and how it was inspired by the political landscape of Thatcher's Britain. Heading towards the programme's conclusion, it explains how the outstanding work of British creators in the 1980s led to them being "headhunted" by American comics publishers (in particuilar DC Comics) which gave birth to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' Watchmen. (Moore reads aloud from a few pages of Watchmen, deliberately giving the character Rorschach a fittingly melancholic and disturbed tone. I wonder if the future Watchmen movie will follow this lead?)

Covering Watchmen and its deserved success as a graphic novel then leads the documentary to waver off tangent a little. With Dez Skinn and Paul Gravett speaking of how bookshops now carry numerous graphic novels the fact is overlooked that most of those titles are American in origin, and the focus of the series is supposed to be on British comics. What's not mentioned is that "graphic novels" are not a Western invention and that such softback and hardback full-length comic books have been in the mainstream of European and Japanese bookshops for decades.

The series concludes with a look at Bryan Talbot's outstanding Alice in Sunderland graphic novel, and Alan Moore and his wife Melinda Gebbie's Lost Girls trilogy of books. No doubt the strong sexual imagery of Lost Girls will shock some of the "old boys" who have tuned in hoping for more Eagle recollections but let's hope their hearts survive it. ;-)

So there we have it. A series of documentaries with a few small flaws but on the whole a very worthy and watchable experience. Worth mentioning also is the distinct look of the series. Using CGI, guests are featured sitting inside comics panels that are relevant to the discussion. In lesser hands this could have looked childish and silly but here the effect is skilled and holds the viewer's interest.

Paul Gravett, (author of Great British Comics) features as the resident comics historian throughout all three documentaries, and smoothly utilizes his comics knowledge to explain the social and political background to these groundbreaking comics.

The aim of the series is clearly to show that British comics are not only a source of good entertainment but also as a valid art form, which they manage admirably by focusing on the top talent in the industry and its most distinguishing comics. By starting with children's funnies and concluding with graphic novels the agenda seems to be that British comics have "grown up". Whilst this has some truth to it, the fact is that comics in the newsstand arena (where these documentaries began their focus) have become increasingly younger in tone. Was this aspect ignored just because it didn't fit in with the direction of the series? Also ignored is the proliferation in small press comics. Admittedly the majority of these are not professional comics, and whether any will grow in popularity like Viz to have any long term effect on the UK comics industry is still unknown, but it could have been an optimistic addition to the series. Nevertheless, Comics Britannia is a fine tribute to the best of British comics and very entertaining viewing.

A three page comic strip by Bryan Talbot featuring a whirlwind History of British Comics appeared in yesterday's Guide magazine (free with The Guardian). As can be seen from the page above, it manages to cover the area the documentaries fall short on - the early days of comics.

Ian Gray, a former editor at DC Thomson sadly passed away last week. The Fun Factory episode of Comics Britannia, in which he appeared, carried an on-screen dedication to him.

Paul Gravett spoke to Arthur Smith about Comics Britannia on Radio 4's Loose Ends. Listen to it here.

Paul will also be interviewed on BBC Breakfast tomorrow morning (Monday 10th Sept) around 8.40am (BBC One) with Children's Laureate Micheal Rosen. (Update: More info about it on the Forbidden Planet blog.)

A companion programme to the series, Jonathan Ross goes in search of Steve Ditko can be seen on Sunday September 16th at 9.00pm (BBC Four).

The official BBC Comics Britannia website can be found at

UPDATE: The Comics Britannia website now has additional online interview footage with Leo Baxendale and Alan Moore, not seen in the documentaries. Visit the site and click on the 'Exclusive Interviews' link on the right hand column to see more!
Kim Newman reviews the series for The Times, displaying impressive comics knowledge himself. Read it here.


Anonymous said...

I had a feeling that, your concerns over the early material aside, you'd enjoy this, mate. True, it isn't an exhaustive history of Brit comics (guess they'd need a lot more episodes and money to do that and would there be a big enough audience?) and has to be selective in what it can cover, but still I think they did pretty well overall. And I'm just damned pleased to see creators like Leo being treated with the respect they deserve (especially after he was reluctant initially to appear on it).

And let's face it, it's just good to see our beloved medium getting a few hours of airtime like this, especially if it appeals to the non-comics readers in viewerland as well as us, which I think it will

Unknown said...

Anybody know if this documentary is available on DVD anywhere or posted online?

Unknown said...

Anybody know if this documentary is availble on DVD or posted online anywhere?

Lew Stringer said...

No, but it's bound to turn up on BBC Four again at some point.

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