Why we're banging on about comics so much

The death and rebirth of British comics.

Any civilian wandering into this ongoing discussion about British comics is probably wondering what the fuss is about all of a sudden – and it does probably come across as an all-of-a-sudden thing. Comics are now being nominated for Costa Book Awardscomics are suddenly invading the New Statesman from all sides – basically, the noise around British comics at the moment is loud.

But this is nothing new. British comics go through peaks and troughs, and currently we’re in a peaky bit. In the mental graph I’m going to attempt to construct in your head, the x-axis begins around 1977 and the y-axis is the amount of interesting stuff happening. Up, down, up, down. Imagine at the moment that we are up.

(NB. One line that runs through the centre of this graph horizontally, unchanging, is that of the cartoonists whingeing about the state of the comics industry – plus also their favourite pens or ink being discontinued, their lives in general and so on and so forth. Regardless of success or failure, this will remain our constant but will never be mentioned again. This is just the nature of cartoonists.)

In September 1986, when Alan Moore’s Watchmen was only four issues in, Neil Gaiman (then a starving young journalist, now not so much a starving young journalist) wrote a piece in Time Out about the rise of the graphic novel, and its growing epicentre: London. More and more shops that sold nothing but comics were opening their doors, and it went like this: by the mid-'70s, American comics had stagnated – it was the same guy in spandex punching out the lights of some other guy in spandex – and readers were bored. When the English sci-fi anthology 2000 AD landed in 1977 – with its lunacy, mutants, Judge Dredd and social commentary – British comics were suddenly something slightly more exciting than what was happening over the pond with the underpants guys. This is an "up" bit on the graph.

By the mid-‘80s 2000 AD was only one of many cool new things happening on this grey little island: there was a comic called Warrior (an anthology notable for being the first place Moore’s Marvelman and V For Vendetta appeared), another thing called Escape (run by Paul Gravett, who these days fronts Comica and turns up in the quotes of any piece on comics in the Guardian), and a handful of other mavericks who either happened or intended to happen but didn’t. There was a flurry of activity and it produced piles of UK anthology comics full of British people – Moore, Gaiman, Dave Gibbons, Eddie Campbell, et al – and all of these things, bar 2000 AD, were dead by 1990. The graph goes up, the graph goes down a bit.

The 1990s had their own anthologies in 2000 AD spin-offs CrisisRevolver, and Deadline, but the last of these died in 1995. After that it could be argued that creators were playing with the possibilities of internet, and that perhaps the internet looked like the way forward. But from the look of the shelves, the community had fractured: British creators were largely self-publishing their own comics and there seemed, at least from the reader’s point of view, to be less of a nucleus of activity. The graph goes down a bit further and flat-lines for a few years. We are at this point a bit worried for the graph.

Which brings us to 2007. While working in a comic shop across the road from the British Museum the most common question asked by tourists in oversized parkas after “Where is the British Museum?” was, “Where are the British comics?” They wanted to take something British home from Britain, something a bit less shit than a mug, a novelty T-shirt or an umbrella injury sustained while walking too slowly down the road.

We would shrug and pull faces and try to explain that aside from the shelf of 2000 AD books, a huge travel-unfriendly copy of From Hell and the handful of photocopied zines by local artists, mostly everything in the shop came from America. A lot of the American stuff featured work by British people – there was Phonogram by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, Starman by James Robinson, Hellblazer by Milligan and Delano, for instance – but it wasn’t what they were looking for. There was British work it just wasn’t the glimpse into the British comics scene they wanted to take home. The tourists would get confused and head off across the street to look at pieces of Ancient Greece we stole from the Greeks. We have called an ambulance for the graph, it is dead.

That was only four years ago. And around that point stuff was brewing that would make life easier for us, tourist-wise: British publishers were either launching or setting their pieces up on the chessboard. SelfMadeHero and Blank Slate have since put out so many books by new British and European talent that their titles near dominate the shelves, and both give relatively untried new talent a go, which means that up-and-coming British creators now have somewhere to pitch to which is within closer reach than Random House comics imprint, Jonathan Cape.

Then there’s Nobrow, an East London outfit launched in 2008 that plays with everything that paper and book design can do – their interest is in comics and illustration and – as the very excellent book designer Peter Mendelsund put it in an interview at Powell’s entirely unrelated to comics – "the thing-yness of books". In a world where Kindles and Nooks and downloadable comics are vying for our attention, Nobrow is exploring the tangible nature of books and producing some of the finest (and best-smelling) objects around. They are bought in their piles by Americans mentally listing the things in their luggage they can do without as they hand over their credit card. Socks and T-shirts and shoes get left in hotel rooms in favour of Hilda & The Midnight Giant by Luke Pearson, Dockwood by Jon McNaught, or their huge semi-annual anthologies.

Which is of course not to say that the scene is purely here to show off to travellers passing through. It’s just that four years ago we would struggle to find stuff for these people interested in British comics bar things that were already 20 years old, and now there’s new stuff every week. The graph is on a sort of Muswell Hill incline. That’s why we’re banging on about comics so much (it also helps that NS curator Alex Hern is a huge nerd): because this is a very good thing.

The Nobrow HQ, drawn by Luke Pearson.

Hayley Campbell writes for a number of publications, but then who doesn't. You should follow her on Twitter: @hayleycampbell.

MICHEL DETAY
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Be transported to an ash-shrouded Iceland with Sjón’s new novel Moonstone

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book – but there is a wonderful netherworld quality to its ashen Reykjaví.

On 12 October 1918, the Icelandic volcano Katla erupted, melting glaciers and causing floods that engulfed farmland and villages, destroying crops and killing livestock (but, remarkably, no people). The flood waters carried so much sediment that in the aftermath of the disaster, Iceland was left with five extra kilometres of southern coastline. Ten times more powerful than the 2010 eruption of its neighbour Eyjafjallajökull, the Katla blast generated an ash cloud that enshrouded the island in darkness.

The Icelandic author Sjón (Sigurjón Birgir Sigurðsson), a miniaturist who deals in large themes, begins Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was on the night of the eruption but with his focus on a much smaller explosion: the climax of a man being professionally masturbated by the 16-year-old Máni Steinn. Máni is an orphan who is being raised by his great-grandmother’s sister. He is obsessed with cinema, with motorbikes and with one of his schoolmates: a girl he calls Sóla G–. A gay loner in an illiberal society, he lives in the unheated attic of a house belonging to a respectable Reykjavík family. Máni is the latest in a series of outsiders who occupy the heart of Sjón’s fiction.

Moonstone is Sjón’s eighth novel and the fourth to be translated into English. He has also published volumes of poetry and written lyrics for Björk. His books often contain forms of magic, although he always leaves a margin of ambiguity around supernatural events. They feature characters that emerge from the sea, or visit the underworld, or flee the Holocaust and bring a golem to Iceland.

The Whispering Muse is narrated by a man fixated on the idea that fish consumption is responsible for the superiority of the Nordic race. In 1949, on a Norwegian fjord, he encounters a sailor who claims to have crewed on the Argo under Jason. In The Blue Fox, a hunter debates philosophy with his prey before – perhaps – transforming into an animal. From the Mouth of the Whale, which may be Sjón’s masterpiece, is set in the 17th century and narrated by Jónas Pálmason, a healer and scholar operating at the stress point between science and magic. Jónas participates in one of the more memorable exorcisms in fiction.

It makes sense that Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is a favourite novel of Sjón’s: his writing gives off a similar sense of flouting familiar rules. Bulgakov’s novel alternates between fantastical picaresque and an almost documentary realism and Sjón clearly enjoys blending styles, too: flick through his novels and you will find folklore, myth, realism, social comedy, local history, musical theory and surrealism. Turn a page and you are as likely to encounter a touchingly domestic description of a husband massaging his weary wife at the end of a day’s labour as you are a dialogue conducted on the seabed between a living man and a drowned corpse (whose speech is interrupted by a succession of ever-larger crabs scuttling from his mouth).

Sjón’s skill in transitioning seamlessly between such episodes is one of the great pleasures of his work, but it also helps to make one of its most important points: that stories are a fundamental part of describing and interrogating existence, and genres – realism, surrealism, postmodernism – are merely tools that help get the job done. In this, and in the way that his books are all puzzles to be solved as well as stories to be experienced, Sjón’s work borders not only Bulgakov’s but also that of José Saramago and, particularly in the funny and eerie The Whispering Muse, Magnus Mills.

Moonstone is in some ways Sjón’s most straightforward book, although it obeys the surrealist rule of awarding dreams equal status to waking life. There is no magic in it, unless we count the magic of cinema as Máni experiences it, and the netherworld quality of Reykjavík when, after being plunged into cinema-like darkness by Katla’s ash cloud, it is depopulated by disease:

The cathedral bell doesn’t toll the quarter hour, or even the hours themselves. Though the hands stand at eight minutes past three it’s hard to guess whether this refers to day or night. A gloomy pall of cloud shrouds both sun and moon. A deathly quiet reigns in the afternoon as if it were the darkest hour before dawn . . . From the long, low shed by the harbour, the sounds of banging and planing can be heard . . . It is here that the coffins are being made.

A week after Katla erupted, two ships from Copenhagen brought the Spanish flu that would quickly kill 500 Icelanders. The same day, a referendum was held on independence from Denmark and, on 1 December, the Act of Union gave the country its sovereignty. The two-month span of Sjón’s novel was, then, an unusually consequential one for Iceland – that outsider nation, that “unlovely splat of lava in the far north of the globe”, as another of his books has it. “An uncontrollable force has been unleashed in the country,” Máni thinks. Unusually, “Something historic is taking place in Reykjavík at the same time as it is happening in the outside world.” Ironically for a nation that avoided the slaughter of the First World War, which also ends within Moonstone’s tight time frame, that “something historic” entails heavy casualties as well. For Máni, this dose of reality feels unreal. “The silver screen has torn,” he thinks, “and a draught is blowing between the worlds.”

Many authors would look to wring the maximum tumult from these events. Sjón’s interest, however, is tightly focused on Máni, and Máni’s strengths are quiet ones. He falls ill, recovers, and bravely helps a doctor treat the sick and dying in the “abandoned set” that Reykjavík has become. On the day of the country’s independence, Máni contradictorily seeks closer ties with Denmark: he has sex with a Danish sailor. Discovered, he rises above attacks from the pillars of Icelandic society, including men who have bought his body. He faces exile, which will turn out to be the making of him.

Sjón’s style is economical, lyrical and sometimes elliptical but, for all his trickster qualities, emotion never gets lost in the intricacies of his storytelling. When the meaning of the book’s subtitle is finally explained, the effect is powerful. Moonstone is about human decency, courage and respect for the individual. It is a small book with a large heart.

Moonstone: the Boy Who Never Was by Sjón, translated by Victoria Cribb, is published by Sceptre (147pp, £14.99)

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad