Kids Read Comics: a popular revival

"Comics aren't for kids anymore!" is a tired cliché: what about the comics which really are for kids? Laura Sneddon writes about the strengths of all-ages comics for British Comics Week.

Children's comics have enjoyed a major resurgence in 2012, despite the doom and gloom headlines that the media has run with. As Charlie Brooker wrote earlier this year, reports of The Dandy's death were indeed greatly exaggerated, with the famously long-living comic making the jump to the digital realm in the face of falling physical sales. Not a death then, but a regeneration that takes the best of what has gone before, gives it a slightly different personality, and possibly a new pair of converse or quirky bow tie.

Meanwhile, The Beano Annual is again one of the top selling annuals of the year, and within the book trade, Nielsen figures for the first half of 2012 revealed that the second biggest grower in revenue was “Children's Comic Strip Fiction”, boasting a growth of 86 per cent year on year. While Jeff Kinney's Diary of a Wimpy Kid books – part prose, part comic illustrations – of course lead the way, sales are also picking up on old favourites Tintin and the Marvel Adventures series, as well as relative newcomers including Garen Ewing's *The Rainbow Orchid*.

In the newsstands too, there is much to celebrate. While The Dandy was obviously struggling to match its once lofty (and now surely impossible!) weekly sales of over 2 million, trend hugging children's magazines such as Moshi Monsters boast a monthly circulation of 227,958 and include comic features. The Simpsons Comic still scores brilliant sales every month, while The Beano sits at a fairly healthy, and consistent, 30,000+ per week.

Compared with sales of old, it would be easy to get a little misty eyed over the loss of those once staggering sales and wide eyed variety. But when competing with games, television, and all the free stuff that the pesky internet provides, it's heartening to see that kids really do still want to pick up comics – even as nostalgic adults grumble about the plastic toys attached to the front. But newsagent space does come at a premium, and as trends rather than originality dominated sales, things started to look a little stale.

Enter The Phoenix. Launched in January this year, the weekly children's comics anthology has been a welcome revelation. Packed to the brim with serialised adventure stories, humour strips and text stories, The Phoenix has become a firm favourite with fans of all ages. The range of talent on display is mouth watering: Jamie Smart, Kate Brown, Simone Lia, Gary Northfield, Dave Shelton, Paul Duffield, and Chris Riddell are just a few of the names on board, with a new strip in the works from Sarah McIntyre and Carnegie-winning novelist Philip Reeve.

Favourite strips include Star Cat, a cat spaceship with a brave crew who boldly blunder where no crew has blundered before; Bunny Vs Monkey, featuring a failed monkey astronaut who decides his crash landing site must be a new world; Planet of the Shapes starring grumpy geometry; Corpse Talk, exhuming famous bodies for informative interviews; and Gary's Garden, where all manner of madness is happening at the bottom of the lawn.

What makes The Phoenix unique is not only the fact that it isn't just all humour based strips like many peer publications, but that it is such an intelligently made and lovingly put together comic. It's a real nostalgic trip for comics fans of old, yet young and fresh enough to avoid the patronising pitfalls of talking down to its audience. The Phoenix is to reading what Horrible Histories is to history lessons: it entertains, educates and encourages you to find out more. Oh, and it's pretty good for kids too. Ahem.

Unfortunately, this comic is a little harder to get a hold of, stocked only in Waitrose and some independent book shops, but it is available on subscription, much like the various children's magazines that flooded the market when I was a child in the 90s (Farthing Wood Friends, how I loved you). With 49 issues and counting now published, it appears the comics anthology is back in business.

The Dandy Online launched last week, reintroducing favourite characters including Desperate Dan, Bananaman, The Numskulls, Brassneck, and introducing an all new team of classic British superheroes, Retro Active. From Jamie Smart's new take on the Numskulls to recontextualising Dan as a legendary figure (allowing for more outlandish fare) it's a bold move for the Dundee-based team, yet it is encouraging that one of the longest running comics in the world is willing to experiment with new formats in the face of a changing market.

The new look has been based around portability, with a dedicated app set to launch "as soon as possible". Children may not be reading as many comics as they did 50 years ago, but mobile phone content is a hot property. Using a credit based system to allow users to tailor content to their own interests, while running extras such as print-out projects and puzzles on the website help keep the focus on interactivity. While the comics do use some animation, it mostly mimics the movement of a comic page as the eye would normally track. Pacing is still set by the reader, particularly important for a comic read by younger children.

Humour is the priority, but superhero strip Retro Active is an interesting switch up, playing it straight and echoing the early days of The Dandy when adventure material ran alongside the slapstick. The Amazing Mr X was Britain's first bona fide superhero, though perhaps not quite so glamorous as his American cousins. As Grant Morrison joked earlier this year, “He could leap about eight feet in the air! He can lift a table!” Retro Active sees a more impressive Mr X return, alongside other half-remembered heroes, villains, and wonderfully, two female superheroes too.

There are still clearly some bugs to iron out, and without the app it is difficult to judge how this new format will perform, but it certainly seems to be keeping the old spirit of The Dandy alive and well.

Dandy publishers DC Thomson definitely have form on the digital front, with their Commando app proving popular with readers, helped perhaps by the aspect ratio of the war comic anthology fitting a tablet screen perfectly. There is no data available on circulation figures, and estimates put the weekly sales of the physical edition of Commando at less than 10,000. However, the digital subscription service is reportedly popular, and the collected pocket editions in book shops are flying off the shelves: four more titles were published this year, with another four due in February. The £5.99 price tag for 200+ pages is very enticing as a pocket-money purchase, and it doesn't seem to be just nostalgic fathers who are snapping these up.

This is perhaps a market that 2000 AD have become more aware of in the last year too, with new digest-size editions of classic Judge Dredd stories being published at digest-size prices (£6.99, compared to £15.99 for the larger "Case Files"). These older storylines, in contrast to the 2000 AD of today, are also generally suitable for ten-year-olds and up, offering an alternative for children who prefer a little more grit in their reading.

To complete the cross-platform appeal of these various contenders, what we really need now is to see some lovely collections from The Phoenix, and some nostalgic reprints of departed characters like Korky the Cat. Repackaging the old, getting the new into book shops, and embracing the opportunities that digital can bring: children's comics are once again at the forefront of comics innovation and originality.

A portion of the cover to the Phoenix #5, by Kate Brown. Image: The Phoenix

Laura Sneddon is a freelance journalist. Find more of her work at comicbookgrrrl.com

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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era