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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The West can never hope to understand Islamic State

Graeme Wood's The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State reminds us of something that ought to be obvious: Islamic State is very Islamic.

The venue for the declaration of the “Islamic State” had been carefully chosen. The Great Mosque of al-Nuri in Mosul was a fitting location for the restoration of a “caliphate” pledged to the destruction of its enemies. It was built in 1172 by Nur al-Din al-Zengi, a warrior famed for his victories over the Crusaders. When Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi ascended the pulpit in July 2014 and proclaimed his followers to be “the backbone of the camp of faith and the spearhead of its trench”, he was consciously following in Nur al-Din’s footsteps. The message could not have been clearer. The Crusaders were back and needed defeating.

Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future. In Islamic State’s propaganda, they certainly are. Sayings attributed to Muhammad that foretold how the armies of Islam would defeat the armies of the Cross serve their ideologues as a hall of mirrors. What happened in the Crusades is happening now; and what happens now foreshadows what is to come.

The Parisian concert-goers murdered at the Bataclan theatre in 2015 were as much Crusaders as those defeated by Nur al-Din in the 12th century – and those slaughters prefigure a final slaughter at the end of days. When the propagandists of Islamic State named their English-language magazine Dabiq, they were alluding to a small town in Syria that – so they proclaim – will at last bring the Crusades to an end. Every issue is headed with the same exultant vaunt. “The spark has been lit here in Iraq, and its heat will continue to intensify – by Allah’s permission – until it burns the Crusader armies in Dabiq.”

How much does Islamic State actually believe this stuff? The assumption that it is a proxy for other concerns – born of US foreign policy, or social deprivation, or Islamophobia – comes naturally to commentators in the West. Partly this is because their instincts are often secular and liberal; partly it reflects a proper concern not to tar mainstream Islam with the brush of terrorism.

Unsurprisingly, the first detailed attempt to take Islamic State at its word ruffled a lot of feathers. Graeme Wood’s article “What Isis really wants” ran in the Atlantic two years ago and turned on its head the reassuring notion that the organisation’s motivation was anything that Western policy­makers could readily comprehend.

“The reality is,” Wood wrote, “that the Islamic State is Islamic. Very Islamic.” The strain of the religion that it was channelling derived “from coherent and even learned interpretations of Islam” and was fixated on two distinct moments of time: the age of Muhammad and the end of days long promised in Muslim apocalyptic writings. Members of Islamic State, citing the Quran and sayings attributed to the Prophet in their support, believe themselves charged by God with expediting the end of days. It is their mandate utterly to annihilate kufr: disbelief. The world must be washed in blood, so that the divine purpose may be fulfilled. The options for negotiating this around a table at Geneva are, to put it mildly, limited.

In The Way of the Strangers, Wood continues his journey into the mindset of Islamic State’s enthusiasts. As he did in the Atlantic, he scorns “the belief that when a jihadist tells you he wants to kill you and billions of others to bring about the end of the world, he is just speaking for effect”. Although not a report from the “caliphate”, it still comes from front lines: the restaurants of Melbourne, the suburbs of Dallas, the cafés of Ilford. Wood’s concern is less with the circumstances in Syria and Iraq that gave birth to Islamic State than with those cocooned inside stable and prosperous societies who have travelled to join it. What persuades them to abandon the relative comforts of the West for a war zone? How can they possibly justify acts of grotesque violence? Is killing, for them, something
incidental, or a source of deep fulfilment?

These are questions that sociologists, psychologists and security experts have all sought to answer. Wood, by asking Islamic State’s sympathisers to explain their motivation, demonstrates how Western society has become woefully unqualified to recognise the ecstatic highs that can derive from apocalyptic certitude. “The notion that religious belief is a minor factor in the rise of the Islamic State,” he observes, “is belied by a crushing weight of evidence that religion matters deeply to the vast majority of those who have travelled to fight.”

Anyone who has studied the literature of the First Crusade will recognise the sentiment. The conviction, popular since at least the Enlightenment, that crusading was to be explained in terms of almost anything except religion has increasingly been put
to bed. Crusaders may indeed have travelled to Syria out of a lust for adventure, or loot, or prospects denied to them at home; but that even such worldly motivations were saturated in apocalyptic expectations is a perspective now widely accepted. “Men went on the First Crusade,” as Marcus Bull put it, “for reasons that were overwhelmingly ideological.”

The irony is glaring. The young men who travel from western Europe to fight in Syria for Islamic State – and thereby to gain paradise for themselves – are following in the footsteps less of Nur al-Din than of the foes they are pledged to destroy: the Crusaders.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, who revolutionised the study of the Crusades as a penitential movement, once wrote an essay titled “Crusading as an Act of Love”. Wood, in his attempt to understand the sanguinary idealism of Islamic State sympathisers, frequently echoes its phrasing. In Alexandria, taken under the wing of Islamists and pressed to convert, he recognises in their importunities an urgent longing to spare him hellfire, to win him paradise. “Their conversion efforts could still be described, for all their intolerance and hate, as a mission of love.”

Later, in Norway, he meets with a white-haired Islamist to whom the signs of the impending Day of Judgement are so palpable that he almost sobs with frustration at Wood’s failure to open his eyes to them. “To Abu Aisha, my stubbornness would have been funny if it were not tragic. He looked ready to grab me with both hands to try to shake me awake. Were these signs – to say nothing of the perfection of the Quran, and the example of the Prophet – not enough to rouse me from the hypnosis of kufr?”

Wood does not, as Shiraz Maher did in his recent study Salafi-Jihadism, attempt to provide a scholarly survey of the intellectual underpinnings of Islamic State; but as an articulation of the visceral quality of the movement’s appeal and the sheer colour and excitement with which, for true believers, it succeeds in endowing the world, his book is unrivalled. When he compares its utopianism to that of the kibbutzim movement, the analogy is drawn not to cause offence but to shed light on why so many people from across the world might choose to embrace such an austere form of communal living. When he listens to British enthusiasts of Islamic State, he recognises in their descriptions of it a projection of “their idealised roseate vision of Britain”. Most suggestively, by immersing himself in the feverish but spectacular visions bred of his interviewees’ apocalypticism, he cannot help but occasionally feel “the rip tide of belief”.

The Way of the Strangers, though, is no apologetic. The time that Wood spends with Islamic State sympathisers, no matter how smart or well mannered he may find some of them, does not lead him to extenuate the menace of their beliefs. One chapter in particular – a profile of an American convert to Islam whose intelligence, learning and charisma enabled him to emerge as the principal ideologue behind Dabiq – is worthy of Joseph Conrad.

Elsewhere, however, Wood deploys a lighter touch. In a field where there has admittedly been little competition, his book ranks as the funniest yet written on Islamic State. As in many a British sitcom, the comedy mostly emerges from the disequilibrium between the scale of his characters’ pretensions and ambitions and the banality of their day-to-day lives. “He can be – to use a term he’d surely hate – a ham.” So the British Islamist Anjem Choudary is summarised and dismissed.

Most entertaining is Wood’s portrait of Musa Cerantonio, whose status as Australia’s highest-profile Islamic State sympathiser is balanced by his enthusiasm for Monty Python and Stephen Fry. His longing to leave for the “caliphate” and his repeated failure to progress beyond the Melbourne suburb where he lives with his mother create an air of dark comedy. Visiting Cerantonio, Wood finds their conversation about Islamic State ideology constantly being intruded on by domestic demands. “His mother was about ten feet away during the first part of the conversation, but once she lost interest in the magazines she walked off to another part of the house. Musa, meanwhile, was discussing theoretically the Islamic views on immolation as a method of execution.”

The scene is as terrifying as it is comic. Were Cerantonio merely a solitary eccentric, he would hardly merit the attention but, as The Way of the Strangers makes amply clear, his views are shared by large numbers of Muslims across the world. Just as Protestant radicals, during the 16th-century Reformation, scorned the traditions of the Catholic Church and sought a return to the age of the Apostles, so today do admirers of Islamic State dread that the wellsprings of God’s final revelation to mankind have been poisoned. What, then, are they to do?

That their enthusiasm for, say, slavery or the discriminatory taxation of religious minorities causes such offence to contemporary morality only confirms to them that there is a desperately pressing task of purification to perform. As Wood observes, “These practices may be rejected by mainstream Muslim scholars today, but for most of Islamic history, it barely occurred to Muslims to doubt that their religion permitted them.” Verses in the Quran, sayings of the Prophet, the example of the early caliphate: all can be used to justify them. Why, then, should Islamic State not reintroduce them, in the cause of making Islam great again?

Perhaps the most dispiriting section of Wood’s book describes his attempt to find an answer to this question by consulting eminent Muslim intellectuals in the US. Scholars whose understanding of Islam derives from a long chain of teachers (and who have framed documents on their walls to prove it) angrily condemn Islamic State for ignoring centuries’ worth of legal rulings. It is a valid point – but only if one accepts, as Islamic State does not, that scholarship can legitimately be used to supplement the Quran and the sayings of Muhammad.

When Wood asks Hamza Yusuf, an eminent Berkeley Sufi, to demonstrate the group’s errors by relying only on the texts revealed to the Prophet, he struggles to do so: “Yusuf could not point to an instance where the Islamic State was flat-out, verifiably wrong.” This does not mean that it is right but it does suggest – despite what most Muslims desperately and understandably want to believe – that it is no less authentically Islamic than any other manifestation of Islam. The achievement of Wood’s gripping, sobering and revelatory book is to open our eyes to what the implications of that for all of us may be.

Tom Holland’s books include “In the Shadow of the Sword: the Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World” (Abacus)

The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State by Graeme Wood is published by Allen Lane (317pp, £20​)

This article first appeared in the 19 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Trump era