Sunday, 26 August 2007

Children of Britain

A couple more thoughts about that International Herald Tribune article.

In Britain the comic has long been considered, well, just a bit juvenile,” it says. And quite reasonably so, given the evidence. If you look at the list of comics periodicals on the Down the Tubes site, you’ll find about 100 titles. Those that aren’t intended for juveniles can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

Of those, two - 2000AD and the Judge Dredd Megazine - appeal to the same arrested adolescent taste as superheroes, which in turn make up about a quarter of the comics, graphic novels and manga on the shelves of British bookshops. Since those manga are almost all shonen or shojo – originally intended for teenagers, not adults - that leaves quite a thin sliver of even the book market that the Herald Tribune addresses remaining as anything other than “just a bit juvenile”.

Mind you, adults aren’t entirely adverse to comic strips, provided that they are comical. The cubicles of England (how drearily they stand) are just as likely to be decorated with tattered yellowing Dilberts as offices anywhere. Viz, whose “Not For Sale To Children” warning appears at the top of this post, may not clear a million copies an issue anymore, but the latest Audit Bureau of Circulation figures, posted by Steve Holland on his Bear Alley blog, give it sales of over 94,000 a time, the third highest for any comic. Even so, it may be significant that Viz, like the comic strip features in Private Eye, gets a lot of humorous mileage from the dissonance between its adult content and its self-consciously childish and traditional comics form, which closely apes the style and grammar of the Beano.

It may seem odd to focus on the periodical market when the Herald Tribune article was about graphic novels, but the two are linked.

With publishers in Britain still mainly taking on works from the Canadian graphic novel publishers Drawn & Quarterly, as well as the American Pantheon and Fantagraphics, the incentive to find homegrown talent is high,” says the Herald Tribune.

That’s to slight a little bit the publisher Carroll & Graf, whose Robinson imprint will be bringing out a second Mammoth Book of Best New Manga later this year. The previous volume was mostly British in origin.

And, of course, there are lots of British creators on the shelves. It’s just that they are mostly working for US publishers, telling tales of men in tights, or for 2000AD, regaling us with stories of hard men with guns. Jonathan Cape and Faber & Faber, on the other hand, are looking for the sort of respectable art comics that will get reviewed on the book pages of the broadsheets (perhaps “literary comics” might be a better term for this market, as reviewers tend to treat them as if they were a novelty form of prose).

It is noticeable that even Jonathan Cape, which has the biggest graphic novel list of any of the mainstream publishers at the moment, only has three British creators in print – Raymond Briggs, Posy Simmonds and Bryan Talbot. And with Talbot, I’m not sure how far Cape established a relationship themselves, rather than re-importing his work for Dark Horse.

It’s not hard to see why this shortage exists. There is nowhere to nurture the creators of such work. There is no British equivalent of Kramer’s Ergot, Mome or Drawn and Quarterly, nowhere to plug the gap between the self-publishing and micro-press covered by BugPowder and the full-size books that Cape and Faber want. Not only is there no Fantagraphics or Top Shelf, there is not even an SLG or Oni.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Escape and Deadline filled this role. They didn’t last long, but they did provide significant exposure for the likes of Philip Bond, Eddie Campbell, Glenn Dakin, Jamie Hewlett and Rian Hughes (as well as Best New Manga editor Ilya). It’s not clear to me where their present-day counterparts could go. The short story contest that Cape is organising with the Observer newspaper and the ICA is welcome, but unless it becomes a regular thing, it is unlikely to have much long-term impact. Perhaps a shortage of publishing entrepreneurs is more a problem than a shortage of creative talent.

Maybe the new British talent is all on the web. If so, I’ve missed it so far. Anyone have any suggestions about what I should look for?

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