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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In Snowden, Joseph Gordon-Levitt seems to absorb the spirit of the whistleblower

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard. It is reassuring that a film in which people are spied can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable.

Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning 2014 documentary Citizenfour captured the precise moment at which Edward Snowden turned whistleblower after quitting his job at the NSA. Is there room for another film on the same subject? Oliver Stone’s fictionalised account, Snowden, would suggest not. In effect, it admits defeat from the get-go by using the making of Citizenfour as a framing device, incorporating flashbacks to show what led Snowden to commit the security breach that exposed the extent of US government surveillance. Cooped up in a Hong Kong hotel room with him as he spills the beans are Poitras (Melissa Leo) and the Guardian journalists Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), who put on their best ­listening faces and try to forget that all of the most interesting scenes are happening in other parts of the film.

What Snowden has in its favour is an economical performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt which is mysterious without being aloof, cool but never cold. The actor gets the voice right (it’s a benign rumble) and though he is physically dissimilar to the real Snowden, that need be no barrier to success: look at Anthony Hopkins in Stone’s Nixon. Gordon-Levitt is absorbed by the role like water vanishing into a sponge. When the real Snowden pops up to stare wistfully off into the distance (there’s a lot of that here), it can’t help but be a let-down. People are so bad at playing themselves, don’t you find?

Gordon-Levitt makes Snowden’s mot­ives transparent without ever fully dropping his guard, and it is reassuring that a film in which people are spied on through the webcams of dormant laptops can still have a protagonist who remains essentially unknowable. The script, written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald, pulls in the opposite direction, allowing every character to deliver a remark of nudging innuendo. When Snowden is discharged from the army after injuring himself, a doctor tells him: “There are plenty of other ways to serve your country.” When he is approved for a job at the CIA, Snowden tells his employer: “You won’t regret this.” What we have here, give or take the strip club scene in which a pole dancer is filmed from an ungallantly low angle, is a more sober Stone than the one who made JFK and Natural Born Killers but he still can’t resist giving us a few deafening blasts of the old irony klaxon.

Though we know by now not to expect subtlety, Stone’s storytelling techniques are still surprisingly crude. When Snowden’s girlfriend, Lindsay (Shailene Woodley), complains that he has become distant, that he doesn’t touch her any more, the viewer is likely to wonder why that point had to be expressed in soap-opera dialogue rather than, say, action or camera angles. After all, the film was more than happy to throw in a superfluous sex scene when their love life was hunky-dory.

But when Stone does make his points visually, the cringe factor is even higher. He used carnivorous imagery in Nixon – a bloody steak stood in for murder – and the new film doesn’t take the vegetarian option either. Snowden is already starting to be alarmed by surveillance tactics when he goes hunting with his boss, Corbin O’Brian (Rhys Ifans). The pheasants they kill are barbecued in sizzling close-up, providing a buffet of symbolism. Snowden is going to be grilled. His goose is cooked. He’s dead meat.

An early scene showing him establishing contact with Poitras and Greenwald by an exchange of coded phrases (“What time does the restaurant open?” “Noon. But the food is a little spicy”) suggests that Stone intends to have fun with the story’s espionage trappings. The movie falls between two stools, however, lacking either the irreverence of satire or the tautness of a well-tooled thriller. At its most effective moments, it floats free of irony and captures a quaint, tactile innocence. We see Snowden communicating in sign language with an NSA colleague to avoid being eavesdropped on, or sitting in bed with a blanket over him as he taps away at his laptop. He is only hiding his passwords but he looks for all the world like a kid reading comics by torchlight after his mother has said: “Lights out.”

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump