The lovely mafia of British comics

Hannah Berry is happy to be a British comics creator, even if she's not Respectable just yet…

I’ve never trusted articles that are written with any authority about entire communities. People are far too unpredictable to be generalising their behaviour into a thousand-odd words.

But that’s by-the-by. Now, let me tell you how the independent comics scene in the UK works.

I’ve had two graphic novels published by Jonathan Cape, which made my mother happy because in the literary world twice published is Respectable. In the UK comics arena, however, twice published – either by a publisher or by self-publishing or by publishing online – is not necessarily the mark of success. Being published is the provisional drivers licence of the comics world: it entitles you to get out there with the other road users, but until you’ve proven your worthiness, proven that you’re not about to turn your car into a twisted metal inferno on a roundabout, you are not Respectable.

A few years ago when I first went to Thought Bubble, the biggest indie comics festival in the UK, it was as a wide-eyed, newly-published author, whose travel costs were suddenly covered. I knew no one (at least not to talk to) and no one really knew me, although a few had read my newly-published book Britten & Brülightly. I was sat at a table with a signing pen, next to another guy with another signing pen. This guy spent the entire weekend stoically and pointedly ignoring me. In spite of my many attempts at conversation (and, for the record, I am pretty fucking charming) I simply did not exist to him.

Now, most people in comics are nowhere near as rude as this pendejo was – most people in comics are actually interested in what other people in comics do – but it was a valuable early lesson in how little being published really means and where I stood in the grand scheme of things. If I was a forgiving person I would look back now with the gift of hindsight and thank him for his twattitidue. If.

Being published is not the endgame in comics. It’s very nice, but there’s much more to being a respected member of the community: essentially, it’s down to what you do for the community.

This is important for two main reasons, the first one being that the community is still quite a small one, relatively speaking. It’s possible to know – or know of – most individuals involved in it one way or another. You meet a lot of people at festivals and other comic events, the same friendly faces a few times a year, or you get to know them through working on certain collective projects together. Often you get to know people via social media first – making 140-character chit-chat or sharing links to new projects. Everyone is connected to everyone else through a complex mesh of friendships and collaborations, and so we are one, big, tightly-knit, faintly incestuous group.

The second reason is that there is no real money in comics. Funding is woefully scarce and the majority of work is done gratis, which guarantees that everyone who works in the field does so because they love the medium. There is literally not one single person who is involved with indie comics just to pay the bills: that is certifiable behaviour.

On top of this, there are no businesses looking to exploit the industry for a fast buck, because the bucks are not fast, my friend, not fast at all. So everyone concerned wants to be here, and wants it enough that they’ll sacrifice pension plans and financial security to do it. The enthusiasm is deafening, you can barely hear yourself think over all that zeal. Everyone believes in the cause of comics, and almost everything that happens in the comics world is driven internally.

Because of this lack of money and external opportunities, creators and comics-related businesses have to be rigorously entrepreneurial. It's a "Who Dares Wins" scenario, and all avenues are explored and exploited. Every conceivable thing that can be done will be done to get the word and the work out there, and often this means relying on your colleagues in the industry.

And the wonderful, fabulous, horrifically Disney-esqe truth of it is that most people in the comics world are very willing to help each other out for the good of comics. We all know how tough things are, how many obstacles are in the way, and how much of an uphill struggle it is to gain recognition inside and outside of the immediate comics circle, but when one of us does exceptionally well we see it as an individual triumph and a group triumph. Any doors kicked down by one trailblazer will stay open for all of us. It’s the system of mutual advancement favoured by organised crime syndicates, but used in a nicer way. Like a lovely mafia.

Not that everything is gumdrops on kittens, of course. From time to time this protective attitude has been known to backfire into full on defensiveness in response to any criticism (which I suspect is why the recent question of sexism in the British Comic Awards exploded the way it did), and there are almost certainly some long-running feuds lurking under the surface, scowling away. It’s understandable, really. We’re passionate about what we do, and we need to stand up for these things that our lives revolve around: so help me I will push a man under a bus if he bad-mouths my beloved medium.

Perhaps that’s how it is with prose literature? I couldn’t say, but I think having something to prove tends to give you a certain fire, and we know collectively we still have some way to go before the independent UK comics scene is taken as seriously as it should be.

So in the UK comics world, kudos is given to comics creators and professionals who are ambassadors for the medium: the ones who have created things so amazing that they have raised the bar and brought the limelight to the scene, inspiring others; or those who rally us and support us by finding new and ingenious ways to bring us together or showcase our work, organising events or festivals or anthologies that allow people to meet, share ideas and create extraordinary things. Basically, the creators and curators and organisers and comic shops and publishers etc who go above and beyond. They have earned Respectability.

Ask not what comics can do for you – ask what you can do for comics. And then do it. A lot.

Panels from Berry's second book, Adamtine. Image: Jonathan Cape

Hannah Berry is a British comics creator, author of Britten & Brülightly and Adamtine, both published by Jonathan Cape. She tweets as @streakofpith, and owns a tortoise called Rooster.

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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