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Saturday, 4 August 2007

British Comics

The man with the square chin is Dan Dare, Pilot of the future.

Giant green head and stunted body - must be the Mekon - Dare's supreme enemy

The scene: a log cabin in Siberia: a British pilot kneeling beneath a lit window. Inside Von Stalhein is warning his new Russian paymasters, “You must never under-estimate Herr Biggles. He could be anywhere.” The British pilot wears a smug look.

Why do we remember such rubbish?

Biggles began his long duel with the German master-villain in World War 1. The fight continued as Von Stalhein mutated into a Nazi, and he’s still fighting an ever-green Biggles at the height of the Cold War. The author, W.E Johns went on to have Biggles fighting the Communist Chinese in the Himalayas. By this time the author was almost as senile as Biggles should have been. My last remaining image of Biggles was being pursued by the Chung - invisible electrically charged maggots the size of dogs through a network of mountain tunnels.

George Orwell wrote a superb article on British comics. “Here is the stuff that is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps a majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else…and with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs… All the better because it is done indirectly, there is being pumped into them the conviction that the major problems of our times do not exist, that there is nothing wrong with laissez faire capitalism, that foreigners are unimportant comics and that the British Empire is a sort of charity concern which will last for ever.” This was written in 1939.

I think Biggles, single handedly fighting German master spies and the two great Communist blocs, shows that comics and boy’s books don’t so much ignore the problems of our time, but rather simplify them. But then I’ve never met a boy yet who reads a Times Editorial for pleasure.

They would much rather read the ‘Yellow Sword’ published in the Wizard in 1968.

He had seen the grey hordes from the East spread like a flood across Europe, as they had done across America a year before, and now he was coming home. ...it was June, and Britain had been conquered. The last news Maitland had heard was of landings by the Kushantis at Dover, Folkestone and in the Southampton area….He was opposite the general store when the announcer came on the air again. “You will now hear a recording of the last message of the late Prime Minister, the last words spoken before his death,” he said. Maitland stopped at the sound of a familiar voice, now heavy with incredible weariness and broken by emotion. “My friends! It is my duty to tell you that at six o’clock this morning, stripped of our defences and in order to save further useless loss of life, the British Government through me, as Prime Minister, signed an act of surrender to the Imperial Kushanti Oligarchy in the Tower of London. I have to say that the act of surrender was made in the presence of His Excellency, Colonel-General Mushti, Commander-in-Chief of the Army of Occupation in Great Britain.”
The wireless was now silent, but some of the villagers heard another voice, a voice that came from the street. Maitland with his head back and a strange glow in his eyes, was singing as he marched. “Rule Britannia,” he sang, “Britannia rules the waves. Britons never, never never shall be slaves!” His voice weakened and faded away. As, with shouts of “John! John’s come home!” his parents and brother rushed out of the house. Maitland staggered and fell sprawling and inert on the garden path.

1968. This was well after my comic reading days were over but think about it. This was written in 1968 - the year of the Paris riots, world wide student unrest, Vietnam and the march on Grosvenor Square - 'Sympathy for the Devil'. And children are reading about a grey horde from the east - Britain over-run - and the hero singing Rule Britannia. 1968. It could have been written in 1910.

Orwell was speaking of a time and place: 1939. Britain. What about America? In Europe,economic and social turmoil saw the rise of fascism during this period - the cult of the leader - the hero born to rule. German had Hitler, Italy, Mussolini. America had Roosevelt, but it was also the period Superman was born. Britain made do with Stanley Baldwin.

Super-heroes change but one thing remains. Whether apolitical or reflecting some degree of cultural liberalism - even bloody-mindedness - super-heroes never question the economic basis of society, or its social structure. Individuals may be bad and the hero will sort it out. At this point my son moseys by. "What about Ultimate Thor," he mutters. "He challenges the American military-industrial complex."

"Adults revisiting their childhood," I mutter back. "Revisionism," I hiss.

The New York Times (05/07/07) in an article on a Comic Book Convention, argued that it’s a cliché about fans of comic /fantasy being losers with no social skills and no friends. Hmm. It can be also be argued that cliché is also another term for an obvious truth, though as a fantasist myself I’d rather believe that truth is sometimes more complex. What interested me most however was its later suggestion that:

“In some respects America is now a country of freaks and geeks, self-professed outsiders who imagine themselves somehow different from the herd, perhaps because they are Americans - radical individualists who are united if only by their increasingly narrow interests and obsessions.” The danger is that fantasy too often compensates for economic and social inequality, imaginary worlds reduce the need to change the one we have. George Orwell would have had a field day with today’s comic culture.

Comics need heroes. Orwell argued that the boy imagines himself to be that hero but as an adult subconsciously assumes a hero is needed in times of trouble. I’m with ‘The Lord of the Flies’ on this one. Children are inherently fascist. They identify with something greater than themselves whether it is Harry Potter, Spider Man, Sherlock Holmes or Biggles. Young souls or tired souls cling to heroes. In quiet times, Fantasy remains the great escape, adding colour to drab lives. But when it comes to social breakdown adults become children again, with their black and white views, their need for heroes - the stronger the better. If George Orwell is right, the seeds are sown in childhood from the earliest fairy tale to the all pervasive cartoon and now CGI.

I'm talking as if there might be an alternative. I don't think there is. It is something built in: aspiration - as basic to us as sunlight to a runner-bean. Social realism for Children? Middle Earth ruled by a Collective. The entire world of fantasy is built upon hierarchy. Heroes of either sex defeat villains, and the peasants get on with their lives with the occasional walk-on part. And what child wants to identify with a peasant?

I didn’t. I lived in a red-bricked terraced house and attended a working class school. I didn’t want to read about it as well! Like a whole generation, I bought into the myth of privilege. In my imagination I attended Grey Friars School, laughed with Bob Cherry and Tom Merry at Billy Bunter. (You were allowed to laugh at fat boys in those days).

The Beano, the Dandy, Topper and Beezer saw me through my early childhood. Characters like Biffo the Bear, or Dennis the Menace, Beryl the Peril, Desperate Dan, Minnie the Minx, Lord Snooty and the Bash street Kids were all well and good, but none surpassed Big Fat Boko and his crow called Koko, and not even that approached - Rupert the Bear.

Big Fat Boko was a fat magician in a red robe and conjured up a mystic world - a world away from Aintree. Rupert the Bear was stronger drink - the summation of imperial mysticism. Set in Nutwood, an idealized English village with the sea conveniently close, stories were awash in mermaids and sea-elves, gnomes, Manchu princesses and worlds within worlds.

Later I became more sophisticated.

I adventured with Breakneck Bradshaw, Thruster John (what a name!) Captain Condor and Magnus the Muscleman; thrilled to the adventures of Captain Zoom, Cool Cassidy, Captain Scarlett, Catamount Jack, Red MacGregor - and best of all Dan Dare - space pilot of the future.

Imagine a square chinned fighter pilot dressed in a neat UN/American uniform; imagine a cultural fusion of the Battle of Britain and the 1950’s. Now put them up against intergalactic villains. There was only one, as I remember - The grand Mekon. He was green with a large globular head, and he floated on a motorized lily pad. He led the Treens who were also green and to a boy of that age carried connotations of Nazis, Japanese, communists or any totalitarian system we saw then as a threat.

Dan Dare also saw my first sexual awakening. It involved an alien race with blue skins and flaming red hair. The women were spectacular. I’ve had a thing about blue skinned women with dark red hair ever since, but so far have been disappointed.


Peter Jackson said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Peter Jackson said...

I also remember Dan Dare's race of alien women with blue skin and red hair. What issue/story was that? I must have seen the original strip around 1955. They were beautiful indeed.

Rod Fielding said...

The Wizard story 'The Yellow Sword' was written and first published in the 1950s and not during the time suggested in "British Comics". It ran from October, 1955 to February 1956, when it ended suddenly in a very brief 'with one bound, he was free' style resolution. In 1957, the storyline was reprised as 'Wll O' The Whistle' when a one-line introduction explained to readers that "For a second time, Britain is conquered by the dreaded Kushantis, [defeated by "atomic weapons" in the final chapter of 'The Yellow Sword'] but again secret fighters dare the invaders’ bullets to free the land".

Mike Keyton said...

Thanks Rod,
I checked your source which of course is correct, and now I'm trying to remember where my source came from. It's good to be corrected and I will in the near future make a suitable amendment.