Soldiers, spacemen and vagrants: Britain’s comics icons revealed
Published by University of Leicester Press Office for University of Leicester in Education and also in Communities
British Comics - A Cultural History
A new book traces the history of British comic papers and magazines and argues the case for them to be as highly regarded as their international equivalents.
Professor James Chapman, head of the University of Leicester’s Department of the History of Art and Film, has published the first academic cultural history of British comics in which a hundred years of British comics are examined in relationship to the times that produced them.
Published by Reaktion Books, British Comics: A Cultural History illustrates that despite the popularity of American superheroes, or the more artistically acclaimed French bande-desinée, the origins of the modern comic are to be found in Britain.
Professor Chapman said: “The first recognised comic papers as such appeared in the late Victorian period. The American comic books, like Batman and Superman, came along later.
“The American comic book represents a popular mythology attuned to cultural and ideological currents in US society, while bande desinée is seen as a serious art form in its own right. Japanese manga comics also have a cult following.”
“The book examines British comics in their own right, not as inferior imitations. British comics actually came first.”
As well as characters still familiar today, such as space pilot Dan Dare, proletarian athlete Alf Tupper and futuristic policeman Judge Dredd, the book highlights some of Britain’s almost forgotten favourites such as Ally Sloper, the Victorian vagrant who was one of the first fictional characters to have spin-offs.
Professor Chapman continues: “The British comic is concerned with Britain and with ideas of Britishness, and engages with this in a rather different way from comics of other nations. For example, the Second World War story is seen as being a very British story, very much about heroising the British war effort.
“Dan Dare is in a certain way a British Flash Gordon, but really emphasising the idea of the British character and morals. His enemies are the Treen, who are this totalitarian technocratic society, and are clearly metaphors for Hitler and the Nazis.”
Like all popular culture, comics provide an insight into the lives and values of ordinary readers, argues Professor Chapman.
“It’s estimated that in the heyday of British comics, between 1950s-70s, up to 90% of children were reading comics. They are part of the imaginative landscape of several generations of British children.
British Comics: A Cultural History exemplifies the innovative research undertaken in the Department of History of Art and Film at Leicester. Professor Chapman has previously written books on the James Bond films and Doctor Who.
“Our approach at Leicester is to study visual culture not as something that just sits in the gallery, but as something that’s part of people’s everyday lives. We are so used to decoding visual signs all the time and comics are perhaps the example par excellence of visual culture in everyday life.”