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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Why Richard T Kelly's The Knives is such a painful read

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert  this novel of modern British politcs is more like a mirror being shot at.

It is well known that Stendhal compared politics in a novel to a gunshot in the middle of a concert: a noise harsh but not dynamic, and with no resemblance to any instrument in the orchestra. What is often forgotten is that his enduring soundbite started life on the losing side of an argument. In The Red and the Black, Stendhal says that he is tempted to present a page of dots rather than subject the reader to an interlude of dreadful speechifying. His fictional publisher replies by asking him to square that with his earlier description of a novel as “a mirror going along a main road”. If your characters don’t talk politics, the publisher concludes – in a scene that does some damage in its own right to Stendhal’s realist aspirations – then your novel will fail to provide an honest reflection of Frenchmen in the year 1830.

Richard T Kelly’s new novel bets everything on this position. Kelly wants to show that a political novel – even one with characters who give political speeches and conduct discussions about policy – doesn’t need to be an ear-bashing polemic or a scuzzy piece of genre writing, but can succeed as a work of realism no less than the story of a provincial dentist’s mid-life crisis, or an extended family crumbling at Christmas.

Kelly is more a descendant of Trollope and Dickens than of Stendhal. His first novel, Crusaders (2008), a consciously neo-Victorian portrait of Newcastle in the 1990s, featured a Labour MP, Martin Pallister. The Knives is a sequel of sorts – a long, dense novel about a Conservative home secretary (Pallister is his shadow) which arrives at a moment when we are thinking about domestic politics, political process, Westminster bartering and backstabbing, and the role of the home secretary.

Kelly begins with a note explaining that The Knives is “a work of fiction . . . make-believe”, and it is true that any resemblance between David Blaylock and the real-life recent occupant of his post is scuppered in the prologue – a long gun battle in the Bosnian countryside with virtually no resemblance to Theresa May’s tenure at the Association for Payment Clearing Services. Yet the novel contains plenty of allusive nudging. Kelly’s member for Teesside may not be standing in for the member for Maidenhead, but a prime minister who is “primus inter pares” of a group of “university contemporaries and schoolmates” rings some bells. There are also borrowings from Robert Peel and Tony Blair, as well as a quotation from Trollope and a discussion of Coriolanus (“He wouldn’t last five minutes”).

As the novel begins, Blaylock is widely respected, has even been named Politician of the Year, but he is also surrounded by possible pitfalls: the presence in Britain of foreign nationals with charge sheets, the proliferation of radical Muslim clerics, the debate over ID cards, mounting questions over his record on unemployment, immigration, human rights. There is also an ex-wife whose work as a barrister converges on Home Office business. The Knives is a full-bodied account of Blaylock’s day-to-day business, in which the relationship between journalism and realism, research and description, is generally fruitful. Kelly’s mirror travels through meeting halls and community centres, down “the plum carpet of the long corridor to the cabinet anteroom”. The problem is that Kelly is too effective – too diligent – and the book is detailed to a fault, at times to the point of mania.

His habits in general tend towards overkill. As well as his note to the reader, he introduces the book with a trio of epigraphs (Joseph Conrad, Norman Mailer, Norman Lewis) and a not-inviting list of dramatis personae – 60 names over two and a half pages, in some cases with their ages and nicknames. Virtually all of these figures are then described fully in the novel proper. One character is compared to a thinker, a dancer, a Roman and a pallbearer in the space of a single paragraph.

Stendhal took his publisher’s advice but did not ignore his own instincts: having accepted that politics might have a place in a realist novel set in Paris in 1830, he is careful to give us an extract from Julien’s 26 pages of minutes. Kelly gives us the minutes. But it isn’t only world-building that detains him. Early in the book, out jogging, Blaylock passes “a young blonde” who is “wand-like from behind”: yet only by virtue of “a conjuror’s trick – a stunning trompe l’oeil – for from the front she was bulgingly pregnant, to the point of capsizing”. Almost every sentence carries a couple of excess words.

In Kelly’s universe, hubbubs emanate and autumn insinuates and people get irked by periodic postal admonishments. At one point, we read: “The likelihood that they worsened the purported grievances of said enemy was not a matter one could afford to countenance.” In a dinner scene, “brisket” is served by the “briskest” of waiters. There are tautological similes, dangling modifiers (“A vicar’s daughter, Geraldine’s manner was impeccable”), truisms (“The law was complex”), fiddly phrases (“such as it was”, “all things considered”), Latin tags and derivations, and every conceivable shade of adverb. When Kelly’s phrasing reaches for the mock-heroic, it often comes back to Earth with too great a thud: “Blaylock, tired of the joust, accepted the black ring-binder.” All this verbiage obscures the novel’s function of bringing the news – or rather, the truth behind the news – and the cumulative effect is grating, even painful, like a mirror being shot at.

Leo Robson is the New Statesman’s lead fiction critic

The Knives by Richard T Kelly is published by Faber & Faber (475pp, £12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn’s revenge