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.

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How "cultural terrorism" became a matter of international law

The destruction of manuscripts in Timbuktu became a landmark case for cultural terrorism.

When Hegel said of Africa in Lectures on the Philosophy of History that it was “no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit”, he was lamenting the perceived lack of a European-style Enlightenment on the continent. Today, we know better. The region south of the Sahara, in particular, is rightly regarded as one of the intellectual centres of the world, with the 13th to the 17th centuries an especially fertile period for the production of its celebrated manuscripts.

In English, we principally know the name “Timbuktu” as a stand-in for the idea of something far away and inaccessible. Since 2012, the name has been said for another reason, because in the spring of that year the Tuareg rebel group Ansar Dine, allied with Islamist militants, set about destroying the city’s ancient mausoleums and manuscripts. Just as the more recent destruction of Syria’s ancient buildings in Palmyra by Isis has captured international attention, the losses at Timbuktu are now irrevocably part of the layers of memory around the old city.

The loss of these unique objects (40,000 manuscripts are thought to have been destroyed, along with 16 mausoleums of Sufi saints and scholars) has raised awareness of what we might call “cultural terrorism”, and has produced an unprecedented circumstance in international law. Ahmad al-Faqi al-Mahdi, a Tuareg alleged Islamic militant, has appeared at the International Criminal Court in The Hague, accused of war crimes relating to the destruction of cultural sites. It is the first case of its kind.

At the British Library’s new exhibition about the intellectual heritage of the subregion, “West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song”, the adviser Gus Casely-Hayford tells me that the “war crimes” label is completely accurate. The attitude to ancient manuscripts in places such as Timbuktu is different from that in the west, he explains: they are living documents, meant to be used. An attack on them is an attack on a whole way of life.

“Artefacts like these are the centre of the community, the focus of identity,” he says. “Al-Mahdi wanted it to be known that he is a teacher; a man who understands the significance of destroying these things.”

Marion Wallace, curator of African collections at the British Library, explains that many of the surviving hundreds of thousands of manuscripts – rescued by local “book traffickers” who smuggled them out of harm’s way – are now to be housed in a state-of-the-art research facility. As we examine a loose-leaf “saddlebag” Quran dating from the late 18th or early 19th century, Wallace explains that such manuscripts were never intended to be behind glass, but were designed to be read one page at a time while, say, travelling on a camel.

There is a photograph in the exhibition of an imam sitting on the floor of his sitting room, exhibiting a manuscript for the camera. Around the centuries-old document, you can see a pile of clothes to one side of him, a tray of drinks on the other, the television in the background: the rest of life.

“I can remember being in a library in Timbuktu before 2012,” says Casely-Hayford. “It was poorly lit and there were shafts of light streaming in from the small windows. You could see specks in the light, fragments of manuscript in the very atmosphere.” In this part of the world, erosion is a mark of respect and reverence, rather than regrettable decay.

The exhibition hopes to set this working manuscript culture in the context of West Africa’s intellectual tradition, stressing the continuity from ancient writing through music, storytelling and cloth design. Yet there is tension here, too: although many hundreds of thousands of precious artefacts were saved from destruction, they will likely never be handled in the same way again. Libraries and museums can preserve the past, but they are less good at letting it breathe. 

West Africa: Word, Symbol, Song is at the British Library until 16 February, 2016. See

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror