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.

Getty
Show Hide image

Ned Beauman's Madness Is Better Than Defeat brings jungle fever to a story of cinema

The author's lustrous and smart fourth novel never quite coalesces into purposeful significance.

“We were in the jungle… There were too many of us. We had access to too much money, too much equipment. And little by little, we went insane.” That’s Francis Ford Coppola describing the filming of Apocalypse Now, but it’s also a fair summary – give or take a few hundred pages of CIA machinations, mega-corp skulduggery and hallucinogenic-fungus consumption – of the plot of Ned Beauman’s fourth novel, a teeming shaggy-dog comedy of megalomania and obsession in which nothing and everything seems to be going on at once.

The setting is the Honduran jungle in the late 1930s. Under the command of a visionary director, a Hollywood company sets out to make a film (called Hearts in Darkness, ho, ho) on location at a freshly discovered Mayan temple. When they arrive, they find the temple already half-dismantled by a team of New Yorkers in the service of a reclusive billionaire. The Angelenos scuttle up the steps of the hemi-ziggurat; the New Yorkers pitch camp at the bottom. Decades pass and the two sides, lost to the outside world, evolve a demented micro-civilisation.

Or is that the setting? The setting is also 1930s California, where a studio magnate creeps silently through a mansion. The setting is prewar New York, where a playboy is kidnapped by goons at an octopus-wrestling match. The setting is Virginia in 1959, where a CIA operative called Zonulet sifts through a warehouse packed with innumerable spools of film. The setting is a hospital in Maryland, in which Zonulet may be imagining the events of the book after inhaling a deliriant hallucinogen. The setting is Borges’s Aleph, or Leibniz’s monad: that mystical point in the universe “from which all other points are visible”.

As the narrative moves forward and Beauman gleefully particle-collides his various fascinations – postmodern paranoia, Hollywood screwball comedy, occult mysteries, spy fiction and the real-life on-set horrors of Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo and the 1930s film serial The New Adventures of Tarzan – such interpretations flicker in and out of probability like quantum states.

Beauman is a sparkling writer, and his book bustles with diverting micro-narratives. There’s a murderous fugitive Nazi who persuades the camp that he’s part of the “German-American Alliance” that won the war, a mousy anthropologist who becomes a leader of men, a newspaperman who gets a Murdoch-style stranglehold on the temple’s occupants, and many more.

But the underlying order is symbolic. The director of Hearts in Darkness, the sprawling meta-movie at the centre of the novel, argues that all good cinema follows a simple rule: its narrative intensifies in five or six escalating steps before “giving way to a thrilling interval of weightlessness or flight, then returning to the status quo”. Represented as a diagram, this trajectory resembles a side view of half a ziggurat, which can also be seen as a diagram of a succession of people following in each other’s footsteps. For example, a novelist writing about someone making a film of a doomed expedition into the jungle. Madness begets madness in this novel, almost as if some conspiracy or occult order were being worked out.

Is any of this familiar? Narrative as geometry, with diagrams. Chipper 1930s banter. Funny but significant names (Poyais O’Donnell, which references a 19th-century con trick; Zonulet, which means “little zone”). Nazis. Contagious insanity. An octopus. An airship. A nightmare conspiracy that may just be a druggy hallucination. A few years ago, Beauman told an interviewer that the work of Thomas Pynchon has had “no impact on British fiction, really, apart from perhaps on me and Tom McCarthy”, but this book isn’t so much influenced by Pynchon as colonised by his work. In chapter after chapter, one can feel the shadow of Gravity’s Rainbow sweeping across the text like the spaceship in Independence Day.

Perhaps there’s a point here. Beauman recapitulates Pynchon as Hearts in Darkness recapitulates Heart of Darkness, and so the shape of the half-ziggurat is redrawn. But when a writer steers this close to his models, comparisons are inevitable, and Beauman’s writing, lustrous and smart as it invariably is, lacks much of the moral and emotional seriousness – the fear, the loss, the sorrow, the threat – that acts as a counterweight to Pynchon’s comic and intellectual games. The result is a novel of great intelligence and humour, cleverly structured and brimming with tricks, that never quite coalesces into purposeful significance. It’s a tremendous rainbow, but I’d have welcomed a bit more gravity. 

Madness Is Better Than Defeat
Ned Beauman
Sceptre, 416pp, £16.99

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear