A week of British comics at the New Statesman

Introducing our themed week on the NS blogs.

"BAM! POW! Comics aren't for kids anymore!"

The state of mainstream discourse about the comics industry has historically been… poor. For years, pretty much the only coverage the medium received in national newspapers or magazines was occasional breathless articles when a comic broke out past the gatekeepers to find "proper" acclaim in literary awards, cinema or scholarly work. Never mind the fact that, even since the 1980s, with Alan Moore's Watchmen, Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Art Speigelman's Maus, such events happened with alarming regularity – each individual occurrence was still largely treated as an aberration, proof, not of the viability of the medium, but of the exceptional nature of that particular work.

In recent years, that has changed. Respectful treatment of the gamut of comics has become the norm, with reviews of comics now a common feature alongside reviews of films, prose and video games in most papers. The New Statesman used to do round-ups of the latest graphic novels, but they fell by the wayside; we will now be reinstating a weekly comic review, starting with yesterday's review of Joff Winterheart's Days of the Bagnold Summer.

Comics are strongly associated with a small pool of countries. America superheroes, the mythos of the modern age, are the biggest influence in Britain; Franco-Belgian comics, including the classic Tintin and Asterix & Obelix series, exert their own pull; and Japan, with its strong manga tradition, has a home-grown industry which only started to be exported in any quantity in the 1990s.

But Britain has its own comics industry. For years reduced to a stub of little more than 2000AD, the Beano and the Dandy, as better money and bigger audiences in America sucked away the best and brightest, a new generation of writers, artists and publishers have revived the scene.

That's why the New Statesman website is having a special week celebrating British comics. Everyday this week, we will be highlighting the best British creators, as well as looking at the life of an artist, the state of all-ages comics, and some much-missed bits of the scene which are no longer around.

If you have any suggestions over what we should cover, leave a comment or find us on Twitter: @newstatesman

Monday: Karrie Fransman and Tom Humberstone, comics journalists, by Alex Hern.

Tuesday: Al Ewing and Henry Flint of 2000 AD, a British institution, by Colin Smith, and the rise and fall of the great British football comic, by Seb Patrick.

Wednesday: Philippa Rice and Luke Pearson, small press, big talent, by Michael Leader, and Kids Read Comics: a popular revival, by Laura Sneddon.

Thursday: Why we're banging on about comics so much, by Hayley Campbell and the British are coming (again): Jamie McKelvie and Kieron Gillen, by James Hunt.

Friday: The lovely mafia of British comics, by Hannah Berry, and, finally, So You Like British Comics. Where Next?, by Alex Hern

Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

JOHN OGILBY/PRIVATE COLLECTION/BRIDGEMAN IMAGES
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Why did Britain's first road atlas take you to Aberystwyth?

Alan Ereira's new The Nine Lives of John Ogilby tells the story of a remarkable book – and its remarkable creator.

John Ogilby was a talented dancer with a bright future. Performing at White Hall Palace in February 1619, the 18-year-old leapt higher than ever to impress the watching James I and his queen. But then, crashing to the floor with a torn ligament, Ogilby never danced again. It was one of many misfortunes he overcame in a remarkable life. He went on to become a theatrical impresario, the deputy master of the revels in Ireland, a poet, a translator and a publisher of ancient classics. He even organised the public celebration of Charles II’s coronation. He was also an accomplished soldier, sailor and spy, as Alan Ereira reveals in this entertaining account of his “lives” and times.

It was a remarkable collection of lives for a man born in Scotland in 1600 and raised in poverty, the illegitimate son of an aristocrat. Yet Ogilby’s greatest achievement was to put Britain on the map when he was appointed “His Majesty’s Cosmographer and Geographick Printer” in 1674. His Britannia is the first detailed road atlas ever made. It opens with a map of England and Wales showing, he wrote, “all the principal roads actually measured and delineated”. It contains a hundred or so beautifully engraved plans of roads as winding ribbons sliced into sections. Rivers, forests, villages and bridges are included as landmarks.

Embracing the new science of measurement and experiment championed by the Royal Society, Ogilby’s surveyors used a wheel with a circumference of 16ft 6in and a handle that allowed it to be pushed along, as well as a clock face that recorded journey distances. With no universally agreed length of a mile, Ogilby chose 1,760 yards. Britannia led to the accurate measurement of almost 27,000 miles of tracks, paths and roads, though only about 7,500 are depicted in the atlas at one inch to the mile.

Britannia was published in September 1675. There were few who could afford it, at £5 (roughly £750 in today’s money), and it was too heavy to carry. Instead, travellers found their way around the country by following printed itineraries, with lists of the towns to pass through on any particular journey.

Britannia is not, as Ereira explains, an atlas of commercially useful roads of the day. The first journey is an odd one, from London to Aberystwyth, then a town of fewer than 100 houses and a ruined castle. Some of the roads chosen were no longer in use, while important routes such as those to Liverpool and Sheffield were left out.

But the choice of roads in Britannia begins to make sense as being those necessary for the royal mastery of the kingdom. The London to Aberystwyth road led to mines nearby. In the days of Charles I those mines contained lead and silver that helped the king pay his soldiers during the civil war. Britannia was a handbook, Ereira explains, for a conspiracy leading to a new kingdom under a Catholic king.

Ever since the start of the Reformation, Europe had been rumbling towards a religious war. When it came on the mainland it lasted 30 years and left millions dead. The subsequent Peace of Westphalia led to a new map of Europe, one of countries and defined frontiers instead of feudal territories with unclear borders and independent cities. England was not included in the peace but shared in its vision of separate sovereignty. This led to different results in different places. In France, the king became an all-powerful despot; in England it was the ruler who lost power as parliament emerged triumphant.

In 1670 Charles I’s son Charles II decided to throw off the restraints he had accepted as the price of his restored monarchy. He wanted to be the absolute master in his land. To achieve this, he entered into a secret treaty with the French king Louis XIV. Charles needed money, an army, allies to execute his plan, and detailed knowledge of the kingdom; Louis was willing to bankroll the venture as long as Charles converted to Catholicism. Britannia was a vital part of Charles’s strategy to assert military control: he would use it to help land and deploy the 6,000 French troops that Louis had promised him to assist his forces. The pact remained a well-kept secret for nearly a century, even though it soon fell apart when the French and British got bogged down in a war with the Dutch.

No matter. Ogilby died in September 1676 and in 1681 Charles II dissolved parliament for the last time during his reign. “Britannia provided an extraordinary grasp over the business and administration of the 399 communities that it identified in England and Wales, and the crown took a grip on them all,” Ereira writes.

In this way, the atlas played a significant part in enabling the king’s revenue to grow by one-third within a few years. No longer needing financial help from Louis, Charles ruled by divine right, exercising absolute power until his death in 1685. The lesson of Britannia was that whoever controls the map controls the world.

Manjit Kumar is the author of “Quantum: Einstein, Bohr and the Great Debate about the Nature of Reality” (Icon)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge