Offered: One Comic Book Industry (good condition)


Or: No Superheroes Please, We're British

Paul Abbott thinks Britain could do with a comic book industry. So why hasn't he noticed the one we've already got?

It's fair to say that Abbott's article for the Spectator, Wanted: A Comic Book Industry, has its heart in the right place. It's clearly written by someone with a genuine love of superhero comics. But tainting that enthusiasm is a dismissive attitude towards British comics typical of someone who hasn't looked past their comic shop pull-list since Wolverine first popped his claws.

The absence of a British comic book industry is easily refuted. Indeed, the article itself manages to do most of the work for us, with a list of prominent British publishers tacked apologetically onto the end. But Abbott doesn't let being under-informed hold him back, characterising the totality of British comics history as "nasty, brutish, and short". A surprise, no doubt, to the talent behind the Beano and the Dandy, two of the longest-running comics in the world.

Among the various mistaken assumptions Abbott makes are that superheroes are the natural goal of a healthy comics industry, that superhero movies are the ultimate vindication of that success, and that Britain, if it wants to compete with America, needs to put its own superheroes in movies. Where he laments the lack of home-grown superheroes as evidence that Britain's comics industry is stunted, those of us who actually engage with the UK's comics industry find something more expansive and inclusive than the spandex-dominated shelves of America. It's not that we lack superheroes; it's that America has a disproportionately high number of them.

After all, the American penchant for superheroes isn't what you'd call a natural phenomenon. It's largely the result of strict 1950s regulation which was drafted, in part, by those with an interest in crippling the horror and crime comics of the era. Things have bounced back due to the gradual marginalisation and eventual disbandment of the Comics Code Authority, but its effects are still visible every time a character puts on a cape or mask then heads out to dispense swift, brutal justice. These characters filled a void that was artificially created, leaving writers nowhere else to go.

In fact, the UK's comics are far more diverse in theme and subject matter not because they can't compete, but because they're allowed to be. Blaming publishers for the lack of British heroes is counter-intuitive when the likes of Nobrow, Blank Slate, and Self-Made Hero are championing original, often untested talent and finding stories with broad, accessible appeal. Similarly, 2000AD, Strip, and Mark Millar's CLiNT magazine maintain a steady periodical presence for genre material. The outlets are there for the Batman of Brighton or the Stoke-on-Trent Spider-Man – but the stories aren't.

So why? The lack of domestic superheroes certainly isn't down to a lack of local talent. Since the 80s, the American comics industry has been dominated by British creators who do superheroes at least as well as their American counterparts, and frequently better. If British talent isn't coming up with superheroes, it's not because they can't. Maybe it's because they're not interested in doing so.

British small press is also managing to thrive with nary a superhero in sight. The self-publishing collective Great Beast houses idiosyncratically British urban fantasies like Blood Blokes and Chloe Noonan: Monster Hunter, while at the other end of the spectrum, the Solipsistic Pop anthologies are genuine objets d'art, mixing lyrical visuals with a love of the medium's physicality. Given the freedom to create anything, the talented writers and artists of the UK are happy to do just that. Is it any surprise the well-trodden ground of superheroes doesn't hold much appeal for them?

While it's not completely crazy to argue that UK box-offices show a clear appetite for superheroes that domestic properties could capitalise on, it does make a lot of assumptions that aren't correct. Leaving aside the fact that cinematic popularity rarely translates into periodical sales, even in America, then by Abbott's logic there's a market for domestically-produced transforming robot toys going completely untapped over here as well. But what could we do to make British Transformers compete with the real Transformers, except ghettoise them by making them Brit-specific? British superheroes suffer exactly that problem – their Britishness becomes the defining characteristic, crippling their appeal from the start.

The truth is that the likes of Batman and Spider-Man are figures so huge that they transcend their country's boundaries. Superheroes are part of American myth. They fill the same cultural space as the Norse, Greek and Roman pantheons - or in Britain's case, the folklore of figures like King Arthur and Robin Hood. As it turns out, we've already got our own superheroes, but they're not the same as America's, nor should they attempt to be. And unsurprisingly, the same holds true for our comics industry.

A page from Tamara Drewe, a (British) comic by Posy Simmonds.

James Hunt is a freelance journalist, and writes about comics at Alternate Cover.

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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