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.

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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

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