Posts Tagged ‘Chris Patten’

Alexei Sayle on Comedy and Politics in Yesterday’s ‘Metro’

September 28, 2019

Alexei Sayle, one of the pillars of the ’80s Alternative Comedy wave which spawned The Young Ones, French and Saunders, the Comic Strip and Ben Elton was interviewed in yesterday’s Metro (27th September 2019). The man’s 67, but still angry – although the interview also says he’s mellowing – and stars in a series on Radio 4 set in a sandwich bar and due to have a headline gig at the Southport Comedy Festival. Speaking to the paper’s Jade Wright, Sayle talked about his career, the state of modern comedy and attacked austerity, the Tories and supposedly ‘moderate’ politicians, who support them. It’s interesting in that Sayle also champions Jeremy Corbyn, without the paper trying to attack the Labour leader in response or a snide aside. The interview on page 51 and continued on page 54 is entitled ‘Sayle Now On’. It’s too long for me to type it up as a whole, but here’s the bits where he mostly talks about politics, along with his family background and the lack of left-wing comedians today.

Alexei Sayle might have been in the comedy business for 40 years, but he’s not lost any of his flair for contemporary analysis. His take that ‘austerity is the idea that the 2008 financial crash was caused by Wolverhampton having too many libraries’ has been spreading like wildfire on social media. May that’s because, as he claims, there’s a surprising shortage of anti-establishment comedians.

‘There’s a gap in the market. Even if they didn’t believe in it, you’d expect someone to do it, just for the money,’ he says. ‘there were loads of left-wing comedians in the 1980s. Where are the new Ben Eltons now?’

His new Radio 4 show, Alexei Sayle’s Imaginary Sandwich Bar, in which the Wolverhampton library gag first appeared, is the Liverpool comedian on his usual erudite, and angry, form. As is evident from the show, he’s become a passionate advocate for Jeremy Corbyn and the grassroots movement he has created. ‘When people sneer at Jeremy Corbyn, it drives me nuts,’ Alexei says. ‘To hear him being called a racist by racists, it’s beyond belief. And yet I have friends who are taken in by this s**t.’

‘I hear him talk, and it makes sense, then it gets deliberately misrepresented by people who have something to gain from that, people who are very much part of the establishment.

Alexei grew up in Liverpool. His mum, Molly, was a pools clerk from a Lithuanian Jewish family and his father, Joseph, was a railway guard. Both were members of the Communist Party. But, while always political, he was keen from a young age to find his own voice. ‘I don’t have a crystal ball, but I think things are changing’, he says. ‘Voters are seeing through the politicians who claim to have moderate views, but actually what they’re saying is really quite extreme.

‘For a long time the politicians from all parties were all fighting over the votes in the middle. Politics went from strongly right-wing to mildly left-wing and there were lots of voices that didn’t get heard at all, loads of people who didn’t vote.

‘You had all these modern, careerist MPs who were almost indistinguishable from each other. But austerity has disproportionately affected young people and other groups who felt there was no one to speak for them. There are new people registering to vote all the time. Maybe they have more hope now.’

So is Alexei more hopeful, too? ‘Yes,’ he says, before pausing. ‘Maybe. More so lately. Suddenly, from nowhere, they have a genuinely left-wing leader and new voices who are vocally opposing austerity as the political ideal it is.’

‘It was never a necessity for force terminally ill people to look for jobs or to close libraries. That was a series of political decisions that didn’t really save any money any way. Now we have a leader who will speak up.’

I was never a fan of Sayle’s comedy myself, as I simply didn’t find it funny. Much of it just struck me as just abuse, without anything really deep being said. But here he’s pretty much right. The only thing I differ from him here is when he says that things have gone from extreme right to mildly left-wing. Blair was always a member of the Thatcherite extreme right. He and the rest of New Labour really did want to sell off the NHS, although I think he definitely believed in making sure that medical care was free. And he also introduced the work capability tests that have caused so many desperately ill people to be thrown off benefits, to live and die in starvation and misery. What differed about Blair is that he was genuinely anti-racist, pro-gay and anti-sexist – so long as they supported him – and was careful to sound slightly left-wing. Even when he was aiming at the same voting constituency as the Tories, using the same ministers, who had crossed the floor from the Tory party, like Chris Patten, and was taking money from the same corporate donors.

But people are waking up to how they were fooled and the country run down by the ‘moderates’ as well as the Tories and the Lib Dems. People do feel they have hope for a better future under Corbyn. As for comedy, the complaint on the right is that there are few right-wing comedians and that it’s all biased against the Tories. Which is rubbish. Buddy Hell over at Guy Debord’s Cat also wrote a blog piece complaining that the contemporary aspiring comedians he’d seen really don’t have anything funny to say. Their act simply consists of them telling the story of their life. I’m not in show business, so I have no idea why this should be so. It might simply be that the people who aspire to be comedians have been inspired by the autobiographical, observational comedy of people like Sayle, but don’t really have anything to say. It may also simply be that as the left-wing comedians of the 1980s matured and were overtaken by other comics, there was a reaction against the older generation’s political comedy. Even so, shows like The Last Leg are still managing to put a well aimed kick to the Tories. But perhaps, if more people are being inspired politically by Corbyn, this will also spur a new generation of angry left-wingers to subject the establishment to bitter scorn and derision. While showing that there can be a better world without people like Johnson, May, Cameron, Swinson and the rest of them, of course.

 

Private Eye Covers Shows Blairites’ Real Policy towards Traditional Labour Members

September 18, 2018

This is the cover of a very old Private Eye for Friday, 2nd October 1998. The caption reads ‘Blair Calls For Unity’, and has Blair saying in the speech bubble ‘There’s a leftie – chuck him out!’

This was the time when Blair was trying to modernize the Labour party by removing Clause 4, the part of its constitution formulated by the Fabians and other socialists, which committed the party to the nationalization of the means of production and distribution. In short, socialism. Blair instead was determined to turn it into another Thatcherite party committed to privatization, including that of the NHS, welfare cuts, and job insecurity. Its traditional working class base were to be ignored and the party instead was to concentrate on winning swing voters, who might otherwise vote Tory. He attempted to win over the Tory press, including the Murdoch papers. Despite owing the start of his career to union sponsorship, he was determined to limit their power even further, and threatened to cut the party’s ties with them unless they submitted to his dictates. His ‘Government Of All the Talents’ – GOATs – included former Tory ministers like Chris Patten. Tories, who crossed the floor and defected to New Labour were parachuted into safe seats as the expense of sitting MPs and the wishes of the local constituency party. Blair adopted failed or discarded Tory policies, including the Peter Lilley’s Private Finance Initiative and the advice of Anderson Consulting. This was satirized by a computer programme that made anagrams from politicians’ names. Anthony Blair came out as ‘I am Tory Plan B’.

The direction in which Blair wanted the party to move was clearly shown by him inviting Margaret Thatcher to 10 Downing Street to visit the day after he was elected. And she thoroughly approved of him, declaring that New Labour was her greatest legacy.

Blair and New Labour were also staunch supporters of Israel. It was money from Zionist Jewish businessmen, raised by Lord Levy, whom Blair had met at a gathering at the Israeli embassy, that allowed him to be financially independent from the trade unions.

Now all that is being threatened by Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters. Which is why Blairite apparatchiks and MPs have done their level best to purge the party of them by smearing them as Trotskyite and Stalinist infiltrators and anti-Semites. The charges are ludicrous, hypocritical and offensive. Corbyn and his supporters aren’t far left: they’re traditional Labour, supporting a mixed economy. And far from being anti-Semites, the vast majority of those accused are decent, anti-racist people, including self-respecting Jews and dedicated campaigners against anti-Semitism. People like Marc Wadsworth, Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone, Tony Greenstein, Mike over at Vox Political, Martin Odoni and many, many others. Many of the Jews smeared as anti-Semites are Holocaust survivors or the children of Holocaust survivors, but this is never reported in the media. Except when the person supposedly attacked is a good Blairite or member of the Israel lobby.

The cover was made in jest when it came out, though it had an element of truth even then. Now it’s even more true. Blair has left the party leadership, but his supporters in Progress and similar groups are determined to cling on to power by carrying out a purge of Corbyn and his traditional Labour supporters.

Just as Blair himself emerged to urge Blairite MPs and Labour members to leave and join his proposed ‘Centrist’ party.

Observer Unveils Launch of New ‘Centrist’, Corporatist Party

April 10, 2018

On Sunday, the Absurder covered the launch of a new ‘centrist’ party, which it was claimed would break the mould of British politics. And talking about it with Mike, I certainly got the impression that the party sounded very mouldy indeed. It has been launched with £50 million worth of funding, backed by businessmen and donors.

Yes, businessmen and donors. This looks to me like more continuity Blairism: claiming to represent the centre, while instead promoting the policies and business interests of the corporate elite. Just like Blair did in New Labour, when he gave government posts to a whole slew of businessmen in return for their cash and support. The party’s launch was also covered by the Mirror, which quoted two of the leading officials in the Labour party about it. One described it as ‘a party for the rich, by the rich, and with the rich’, which sounds very true, although it also describes the Tories, Lib Dems and the Blairites in Labour. Another leading member mocked the new party for having no members, no rule book and no ideology.

Well of course it doesn’t. It looks very much like Tony Blair trying to claw his way back into British politics. I don’t know if he’s behind this, but he certainly made murmurings about starting a new party. This party has been set up a party to appeal to the ‘centre ground’ he thinks are being alienated from Labour by the ‘far’ left Jeremy Corbyn. In fact, Corbyn is centre left, and is actually becoming increasingly popular as the corporatist, Thatcherite policies pursued by Blair and the Tories before and after him are increasingly shown to be failing.

He also doesn’t seem to have learned that far from being attracted by corporatism, voters are actually repelled by it. Blair’s time in office was marked by numerous exposes of his rewarding greedy donors, as well as George Monbiot’s book, Captive State, which described how, under Blair and his predecessors, the British state had been made into the vehicle for the interests of big business. Like the supermarkets, led by New Labour donor David Sainsbury, amongst others. Far from this attracting voters, the Labour party actually lost them as Blair continued to ignore the party’s traditional base in the working and lower middle classes in order to appeal to ‘aspirational’ middle class voters.

And its lack of ideology is part of its Blairite nature. Blair too described New Labour as having left ideology behind, by which he meant socialism, and would use instead what worked. By which he meant private industry, which spectacularly hasn’t. It also appears that Blair believes that this new party will also borrow, or work with members of other parties where necessary or appropriate. Which is back to Blair’s ‘Government Of All the Talents’, which included leading Tories like Chris Patten.

So far from breaking the mould, this new party is simply more of the same from Blairism. It’s also highly debatable how different it is from the other, existing parties. The Tories are dominated by corporate interests, which they have been representing since the 19th century. So too are the Lib Dems under Vince Cable. Statistics gathered way back in 2012 or so showed that 77 per cent of MPs had one or more directorships. This is a major problem for those trying to get our elected representatives to work for ordinary people, rather than the corporate elite. The same problem is particularly acute in America, which is why Harvard University issued a report stating that America was no longer a functioning democracy, but an oligarchy. Once elected to office, American politicos follow the wishes of their corporate donors, not their constituents.

This new party isn’t going to reinvigorate democracy. It’s unnecessary, unwanted, and if anything a real danger to it by standing to give even more political power to business people as its members and donors. It looks less like a serious contender, and more like a vanity project by Blair, trying to show that the public still want him and his increasingly worn out policies.

Lobster on Politically-Motivated False Accusations of Anti-Semitism

May 2, 2016

I found this very interesting and pertinent quote from Uri Avnery’s paper, ‘Manufacturing Anti-Semites’ in Tom Easton’s article, ‘Terrorism, Anti-Semitism and Dissent’, in Lobster 47, Summer 2004: 3-8. The article’s an analysis of the role of the Neo-Cons in Britain and America, and the Israel lobby, in the invasion of Iraq and the new imperialism in the Middle East. The article’s based on four books, Covert Action: The Roots of Terrorism, ed. Ellen Ray and William H. Schaap, The Politics of Anti-Semitism, ed. Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair, The Betrayal of Dissent: Beyond Orwell, Hitchens and the New American Century by Scott Lucas, and George Galloway’s I’m Not The Only One. He writes

Uri Avnery’s ‘Manufacturing Anti-Semites’ is a very powerful attack on the present government of Israel by one of its own citizens.

‘The Sharon government is a giant laboratory for growing the Anti-Semitism virus. It exports it to the whole world. Sharon’s propaganda agents are pouring oil on the flames. Accusing all critics of his policy of being anti-Semites, they brand large communities with this mark. Many good people, who feel no hatred at all towards the Jews but who detest the persecution of the Palestinians, are now called anti-Semites. thus the sting is taken out of this word, giving it something approaching respectability.’

In America, he says, ‘the Jewish establishment is practically straining to prove that it controls the country’. Avnery describes how in 2002 a young black congresswoman, Cynthia McKinney, ‘dared to criticise the Sharon government, support Palestinians and (worst of all) Israeli and Jewish peace groups. The Jewish establishment found a counter-candidate, practically unknown black woman, injected huge sums into the campaign and defeated Cynthia. All this happened in the open, with fanfares, to make a public example – so that every senator and congressperson would know that criticising Sharon is tantamount to political suicide.’

Easton in his paragraph quotes the absolute dominance of the Israel lobby over congress, and the disastrous effect this has had on relations between America and the rest of the world.

This theme is taken up by George Sutherland, the pen name of a ‘senior congressional staffer’, in describing what he calls ‘Our Vichy Congress’. He writes: ‘For expressions of sheer grovelling subservience to a foreign power, the pronouncements of Laval and Petain pale in comparison with the rhetorical devotion with which certain congressmen have bathed the Israel of Ariel Sharon.

After detailing several examples of the way the Israeli lobby operates, including preventing an investigation of the Israeli ‘arts students’ saga, he concludes:

‘Israel’s strategy of using its influence on the American political system to turn the US national security apparatus into its own personal attack dog – or Golem – has alienated the United States from much of the Third World, has worsened US ties to Europe among rancorous insinuations of anti-Semitism, and makes the United States a hated bully.’

Sutherland quotes the words of EU commissioner Chris Patten in The Washington Post: ‘A senior Democratic senator told a visiting European the other day: “All of us here are members of Likud now.”(p.5).

Avnery, and Israeli critics of their country’s foreign policy and maltreatment of the Palestinians, are, not surprisingly, subject to intense hostility in their homeland. In one poll, a majority of Israelis declared that those of their countrymen who defended the Palestinians should be stripped of their citizenship. Avnery also has a point about the way the cavalier use of accusations of anti-Semitism have cause the word to lose much of its sting. The Cynthia McKinney affair was reported and remarked on in the Libertarian blog, Vox Day, which is highly critical of Israel and does have a very pronounced tone of anti-Semitism.

The accusations directed at Naz Shah, Ken Livingstone and now Jeremy Corbyn are in line Sharon’s strategy of trying to silence his critics with the same accusation. And the more it’s used, the more likely it will have the opposite effect.

Vox Political on Peter Oborne’s Resignation Article in Open Democracy

February 19, 2015

Mike over at Vox Political has this article on Peter Oborne’s resignation, entitled Oborne’s resignation article lifts the lid on Torygraph corruption. This reports on Oborne’s article giving his reasons for resigning from the Torygraph, including extracts from the article. While the newspaper’s cover-up of tax avoidance and money-laundering was the immediate reason Oborne took the step of walking out, this was only one of a number of instances where the newspapers content had been grotesquely distorted to suit the interests of the advertisers. Other examples include a puff-piece about Cunard’s Queen Mary II; extremely minimal news coverage given to the pro-democracy protests in China, with another puff piece by the Chinese government urging the British people not to let events in Hong Kong ruin the relationship between the two countries; further puff-pieces about the wonders of Tesco, while the false accounting scandal at the company was, like Hong Kong, barely mentioned.

The virtual black-out on any adverse news about HSBC, including its investigation by the Swiss authorities, began two years ago in 2013. Quite simply, the bank was a such a major advertiser, that journalists were told that they simply couldn’t afford to lose the account. And so they did everything they could to appease it.

Oborne further makes the point that the Telegraph is only one case of the corruption of British journalism in general. He attacks the way the newspapers, with the honourable exception of the Guardian, were silent during the phone-hacking scandal, regardless of whether or not they were involved.

He makes the excellent point that this has extremely serious implications for democracy. Newspapers aren’t just entertainment, and they aren’t their to appease big corporations and rich men. ‘Newspapers have a constitution duty to tell their readers the truth’.

Mike himself is a trained journalist, and as he says, has personal experience of this. He walked out on two jobs because of management interference in the contents of the newspapers he was with to suit their advertisers.

The article begins

Peter Oborne has written an enlightening article on OpenDemocracy, covering his concerns about the Daily Telegraph’s editorial enthrallment to its advertising department and the effect on its news coverage.

Passages like the following are particularly disturbing:

The reporting of HSBC is part of a wider problem. On 10 May last year the Telegraph ran a long feature on Cunard’s Queen Mary II liner on the news review page. This episode looked to many like a plug for an advertiser on a page normally dedicated to serious news analysis. I again checked and certainly Telegraph competitors did not view Cunard’s liner as a major news story. Cunard is an important Telegraph advertiser.

The paper’s comment on last year’s protests in Hong Kong was bizarre. One would have expected the Telegraph of all papers to have taken a keen interest and adopted a robust position. Yet (in sharp contrast to competitors like the Times) I could not find a single leader on the subject.

At the start of December the Financial Times, the Times and the Guardian all wrote powerful leaders on the refusal by the Chinese government to allow a committee of British MPs into Hong Kong. The Telegraph remained silent. I can think of few subjects which anger and concern Telegraph readers more.

On 15 September the Telegraph published a commentary by the Chinese ambassador, just before the lucrative China Watch supplement. The headline of the ambassador’s article was beyond parody: ‘Let’s not allow Hong Kong to come between us’. On 17 September there was a four-page fashion pull-out in the middle of the news run, granted more coverage than the Scottish referendum. The Tesco false accounting story on 23 September was covered only in the business section. By contrast it was the splash, inside spread and leader in the Mail. Not that the Telegraph is short of Tesco coverage. Tesco pledging £10m to fight cancer, an inside peak at Tesco’s £35m jet and ‘Meet the cat that has lived in Tesco for 4 years’ were all deemed newsworthy.

The article can be read at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2015/02/18/obornes-resignation-article-lifts-the-lid-on-torygraph-corruption/.

The Guardian and Observer haven’t exactly been as entirely blameless or free of such contagion as Oborne describes. In the 1990s and 2000s they often featured in the pages of Private Eye’s ‘Street of Shame’ column for running the same kind of puff-pieces Oborne describes. Frequently, these were articles extolling the virtues of extremely authoritarian countries, like Indonesia, which at that time was pursuing its brutal occupation of East Timor through terror and genocide, and similarly harshly suppressing and persecuting political dissidents. Nevertheless, it should be said that Groaniad and Absurder still published articles criticising such regimes.

And Murdoch’s might empire also has form in this. Australia’s Minister for Public Enlightenment was personally horrified by the Tianamen Square massacre. Nevertheless, Murdoch was keen to expand his global empire into the Chung Kuo. Thus when Chris Patten tried to publish his book describing his experiences and perspectives as the last British governor of Hong Kong, it was turned down by HarperCollins. The publisher was owned by Murdoch, who didn’t want to upset the Chinese, and so lose his chance of subjecting the citizens of the Middle Kingdom to the same kind of moronic bilge he inflicts on the rest of the population.

The corruption of the British press goes back decades. The Torygraph and HSBC are merely the most extreme and recent example. Let’s hope this prompts people to strike back and demand a genuinely free and informative press.

Resisting the Tories War on the Poor: Bring Back the Underground and Alternative Comics

December 24, 2013

As I’ve written in previous blog, one of the problems facing Left-wing opponents of the Coalition and its vile policies is how to get the message across, when the media are nearly all biased towards the Conservatives. One possibility may be to use comics and graphic novels, following the examples of the great underground and alternative comics that first appeared in the 1960s and ’70s, before expanding and changing, along with the rest of the comics world in the ’80s and ’90s. Two of the most famous examples of comics creators using the medium to make extremely serious political points were Brought to Light and Aargh in the 1980s. These were a response to atrocities committed by CIA-backed Contra rebels in Nicaragua and the Thatcher government’s attempt to pass the now notorious Clause 28 respectively. This last piece of legislation was intended to prevent schools promoting homosexuality. Gays and libertarians were outraged by what they saw as the official promotion of homophobia, and feared that it would be followed by even more punitive legislation directed at gays themselves. Since Mrs Thatcher’s death, there has been some attempt to rehabilitate her regarding her attitude towards homosexuality. It’s been rightly observed that she did not personally hate gays, and that an attraction to one’s own sex was no obstacle to serving in her cabinet. Thatcher’s economic model was, however, Chile under the Fascist dictator General Pinochet, who was a personal friend of hers. At a time when homosexuality was far less tolerated than at present, there was a real fear that Thatcher would not only import Pinochet’s monetarism, but also follow him in destroying personal and political freedoms over here. Under the Right-wing totalitarianism Thatcher seemed ready to establish, gays would also be brutalised and persecuted, as well as other social and political groups the government deemed offensive or a threat. This was the background to the Fascist dystopia depicted in Moore’s and Lloyd’s comic strip and graphic novel, V for Vendetta.

Moore also contributed to Brought to Light, writing the strip ‘Shadowplay’, illustrated by the American comics artist Bill Sienkiewicz. ‘Shadowplay’ is a bitterly funny history of the way the CIA had backed Right-wing dictators and conspired to overthrow left-wing regimes, as well as engage in other, illegal and extremely unethical tactics across the world, as told in a sleazy bar by a cynical American eagle. It’s an example of the way comics, in the hands of good writers and artists, can be used to make deadly serious political points based on fact in a manner that it is entertaining as well as informative.

Shadowplay art

Art from ‘Shadowplay’ from Brought to Light, written by Alan Moore with art by Bill Sienkiewicz, showing the caricature-based artistic style used to make their point about the CIA infamous legacy of atrocity and human rights abuses.

Moore also contributed to Aargh!. This was a collection of strips, whose title was an acronym supposedly standing for ‘Artists Against Rampant Government Homophobia’. Although it was a British response to Thatcher’s Clause 28, it followed a line of American underground gay comics from the 1970s, such as Harold Hedd, Barefootz and the lesbian comic, Dynamite Damsels, culminating in the anthology, Gay Comix, published by Kitchen Sink.

Aargh1

Page from Aargh!

The underground comics were largely a product of the 1960s Hippy counterculture, and much of their contents were based around drugs and sex. This is shown very much in the work of the best known of the underground comics creators, Robert Crumb, and Gilbert Shelton’s Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, a comic about the weird adventures of a group of hippy drug freaks. In the 1970s a number of explicitly political underground comics appeared, including Slow Death Funnies, Edu-Comics and Anarchy Comics. Slow Death produced a number of issues, each devoted to a particular topic, such as the medical-industrial complex, nuclear power, the campaign against the Vietnam War and Greenpeace. As well as satirical strips, they also included facts and figures. Edu-Comics also produced a number of individual comics devoted to particular issues, such as All-Atomic Comics (1976) and Energy Comics (1980), which attacked the nuclear power industry.

Atomic Comics

Pages from All-Atomic Comics showing the mixture of satirical strip and factual contents.

Britain also had a number of political underground comics, such as the Optimist and Committed Comics. The Optimist appeared in 1976, and featured strips that discussed squatting, the dole, abortion and hypothermia amongst British pensioners.

Optimist

Cover from The Optimist.

Committed Comix, for its part, had strips discussing Northern Ireland, gay rights and the rise of the National Front.

Back to the Thirties

Back to the Thirties strip from Committed Comix, warning of the rise of the extreme Right-wing National Front.

These underground comics helped create a tradition of highly political comics that continued well into the 1990s, with titles such as Downside. This was a soap opera set in Thatcher’s Britain, which strongly criticised her government and its policies, and which ironically used quotes from her for each issue’s titles.

Downside Thatcher

Other comics in the 1980s devoted to particular contemporary issues include Strip AIDS, El Salvador: A House Divided and Palestine. Alan Moore also produced another political comic in consultation with an American conscientious objectors’ group, Real War Stories. This was intended to promote its anti-War message through presenting the reality of armed conflict, based on the experiences of real soldiers.

Apart from these Underground and alternative comics, mainstream comics also became far more adult with an increasing demand from their readers for them to include more mature themes and issues. One issue of Daredevil attempted to show the horrific effects of drugs on American schoolchildren, while another superhero comic, The Vigilante, dealt with child abuse. In Britain a range of comics were produced by Fleetway, aimed at readers over the age of 16. These included Crisis, and its strip, ‘Third World War’. This was about a pair of teenagers drafted in to serve the multinational food corporations as they exploited the Developing World.

Crisis Cover

Cover of Crisis.

Most of these new, adult strips didn’t last very long. The new emphasis on gritty realism and politics did not attract the younger readers, on whom the industry traditionally depended, and the comics industry in general suffered a massive collapse after the initial boom of the 1990s. Nevertheless, despite this decline, 2000 AD has survived. Many of its strips, including Judge Dredd, were sharply satirical. As the millennium approached, for example, the comic decided to celebrate the approaching year of its title with a satirical strip harking back to Mach 1, one of the very strips in the new comic. Mach 1 was based very much on the Six Million Dollar Man. Instead of bionics, however, Mach 1 owed his massively increased strength and speed to ‘compu-puncture hyperpower’. To help him control it, Mach 1 had a special computer implanted in his head which gave him advice. 2000 AD took this early strip, and reworked it into a strip satirising Tony Blair, the then current prime minister. He appeared as Blair 1, with his inbuilt computer advisor, Dr Spin. Two of the problems facing the fictional PM was how to support single mothers, as well as what should be done about the abandoned mines left through the closure of the mining industry by Major’s regime. Dr Spin’s advice is to solve these problems by combining them, so that the single mothers are then sent down the mines. A long line of them appear in characteristic miner’s gear, singing ‘Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work we go! We work all day for rubbish pay, thank you, Tonio!’ Other politicians skewered by the strip also included Chris Patten and Anne Widdicombe.

The 1980s also saw the appearance of Diceman, a comic in which the individual strips were adventure games that could be played by the reader, and whose narrative and ending depended on the choice they made as they progressed through the game. It was the graphic successor not only to similar, text-based games like The Warlock of Firetop Mountain, but also to the various ‘Have Your Own … Adventure’ books aimed at younger readers, which used comic strips as the format for similar adventure games. Diceman was a spin-off from 2000 AD, and many of the games were based on its strips and characters, including Slaine and Nemesis the Warlock. It also shared the satirical slant of its parent, and several of its games attacked the leaders of the British and American governments. Thus, Diceman ran the strips Thatcher: A Dole-Playing Game, and one in which the reader played Ronald Reagan. This was illustrated by that veteran of underground comics and political subversion, Hunt Emerson. These were humorous in tone. One of the problems presented to the reader in the Reagan strip is that, as the present, your popularity is falling. The way to regain popularity is to launch an investigation into your own family tree, in the hope that a suitably popular and glamorous ancestral link can be found. The reader thus spun the dice to decide, who the investigation would say Reagan was related to. The highest numbers produced the most popular relatives, who duly boosted your score as Ronald Reagan. The most popular of these was the Queen, followed by ‘a lot of Irishmen’. The lowest score, however, made you related to Bonzo, Reagan’s chimpanzee fellow star from his film, Bedtime for Bonzo. The strip also made extremely serious and alarming factual points, such as when it discussed some of the occasions in which mistakes and malfunctions had left the world a millimetre away from nuclear war. One of these, for example, was when a technician accidentally dropped a spanner down the shaft of a nuclear silo.

A number of alternative comics have also appeared in Britain, which also include a strongly political element. These include Pete Loveday’s Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man, whose hero is a hippy going from one weird experience to another. Like the Underground comics before it, much of the humour in this centres around the alternative culture and the various festivals that had appeared by the ’90s, and drugs. It also showed and satirised the demoralising experience of job hunting, government cuts to unemployment benefit at the Job Centre, and the callous attitude of hospital administrators, eager to get people out of their hospital beds as quickly as possible in order to accommodate the next person in the queue.

Russel Job Hunting

The reality of looking for a job, as depicted in Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man.

Russel DofE

Russell finds that Unemployment Benefits are being replaced by payment in kind. From Russell: Part 2.

Russel Hospital Admin

Apart from the political comics themselves, many contemporary British comics artists and writers entered the field through the Underground comics, including Brian Bolland, Angus McKie, Dave Gibbons, Bryan Talbot, Hunt Emerson and Steve Bell, known for his political cartoons in the Guardian and the Indepedent, like Maggie’s Farm. There are also a large number of younger comics artists and writers out there in the wider fan culture, many of whom have got around problems of finding a commercial publisher by publishing their work themselves. Comics are also no longer confined to print and hardcopy. A few artists have taken to the web to publish their work. There is thus a large pool of talent available to create such comics, and the developments in comics publishing over the last couple of decades means that a political comic attacking the governments’ welfare policies could be published independently, or on-line and so get around the problem of finding a commercial publisher that way. Graphic novels have established comics as a medium in which serious issues can be discussed, and the growth of comics and their readership has meant that Waterstone’s now has a section devoted to comics and graphic novels. I also believe that Forbidden Planet would also be willing to stock such a comic. As well as conventional, mainstream comics like Batman, Superman, Spiderman and so on, Forbidden Planet has also stocked the independent, alternative and underground comics, including some of the very political work published by Knockabout. It might even be worth some of the comics companies republishing some of the old satirical strips. Margaret Thatcher has passed away, but her shadow still looms large over the British political landscape, with politicians on both the Right and the Left presenting themselves as her political heir and successor. It would thus be a timely reminder of how much suffering she caused in her day. And some of the issues discussed in the British undergrounds are still all too relevant. The references in The Optimist to pensioners suffering from hypothermia is, tragically, one of these. There was shock a few months ago when it was revealed just how many tens of thousands of senior citizens had died of the cold the previous winter.

Rather than a comic, published in serial instalments, I think the best way of using the comic strip to satirise and attack the government would be a graphic novel, or anthology, dedicated to the issue of poverty and the Coalition’s war on the poor, the unemployed and the disabled, like Brought to Light, Aargh! and the others in the 1980s and 1990s. The harshness of the government’s policies and the immense suffering they have created, such as the very many disabled people, who have committed suicide after being found fit for work by ATOS, surely warrant a similar treatment to the issues graphic novels explored and publicised in those decades. I am not saying that such a graphic novel or comic would be sufficiently influential to persuade the public to vote Cameron, Clegg and the others out. Ian Hislop, the editor of Private Eye and one of the creators of British satirical puppet show, Spitting Image, was once asked on Radio 4 whether he thought satire could change anything. He answered, ‘No’, and pointing out that no matter how viciously Spitting Image caricatured and attacked Mrs Thatcher and her government, people still kept voting for her. Nevertheless, if told with wit and style, such a graphic novel or comic might still reach and affect some people, who would otherwise find politics boring and help change the minds of those, who would otherwise quietly accept the Right-wing media’s misleading reporting and views of these issues. If even some people change their mind as a result, or are encouraged to vote against the government or become politically active against their policies, then such a graphic novel or comic will have succeeded.

A political comic attacking the government and its welfare policies would doubtless be extremely controversial. This is nothing new. The underground comics were notoriously controversial, and in the 1970s were the subjects of a series of obscenity cases in America that decimated the underground scene. Their counterparts over this side of the pond were similarly attacked. I remember that back in the ’70s and ’80s Knockabout always seemed to be raided by the police. Martin Barker in his book, Comics: Ideology, Power & the Critics, has also pointed out how mainstream children’s comics have also been the frequent target of official disapproval. Many of these were on the grounds that they were cheap rubbish that kept children away from reading proper literature, or that they indoctrinated their younger readers with the wrong values, either from the subversive Left or capitalist right. Barker wrote the book while Mrs Thatcher was Prime Minister, and popular literature, particularly comics, was coming under increasing attack. In the postscript to the book Barker makes a passionate defence of comics in the face of growing demands for censorship. Although comics and graphic novels are now better accepted than they were in the 1980s, his comments are still relevant today.

‘In this book I have worked hard at being the analyst. Assessing and weighing, investigating and evaluating. Not above a bit of anger when I find bad theory and empirical misrepresentation, but basically cool. Perhaps every now and then a bit of laughter or passion when something I really love comes up before my eyes, but most of the time outside it all. This is, of course, not true at all. I live in this damned country at this damned time and comics are part of my and my children’s lives. And I now say passionately: let us have as many of the things as we possibly can. In the face of the capital-calculating machine called Thatcherism which used morality like murderers use shotguns, all the little things like comics matter. Little by little, the cohorts of the ‘competitive-minded’ seek to shut down, enclose, militarise our imaginations. Comics prise open the bars just a little. Dreaming, eh? Give that chap a ‘short, sharp shock’! I am quite willing to say passionately: all those in whom humanity remains prized about the ‘laws of the market’ have no business (you own none, you have none) helping to block the dreaming that people manage to do. Imagination, fantasy, call it what-you-will, is not some fixed drum which, filled with the wrong stuff, will then be unavailable for other purposes. For heaven’s sake, let us have dreamers; or we will have hell. My defence of the comics is, to me, in the end a defence of the right to imagine.’ (p. 301). He then proceeds to attack comics’ left-wing critics for their censorship, which they share with Thatcher.

Comics and graphic novels have a long tradition of highlighting social and political problems, and satirising and attacking repressive governments and exploitative organisations and corporations. This tradition provides a fertile ground for attacking the present, repressive, exploitative government, and I’m sure there are plenty of talented and enthusiastic young comics writers and artists willing to do this. Such a graphic novel may not be successful, but it would be worth trying, and might, just might, help change a few minds.

On the subject of the way comics in the 1980s began to tackle serious, adult issues, here is an edition of the 1980s documentary series, Signals from 1989, I found on youtube. Entitled ‘The Day Comics Grew Up’, it features interviews with Alan Moore, Archie Goodwin, John Byrne, Tom Veitch and Jim Baikie, amongst other writers and artists, talking about their work and the demand for comics to include such mature, serious subjects.

.

Sources

Martin Barker, Comics: Ideology, Power & the Critics (Manchester: Manchester University Press 1989).

Pete Loveday, Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man (London: John Brown Publishing 1991).

Pete Loveday, Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man, Part 2 (London: John Brown Publishing 1993).

Roger Sabin, Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art (London: Phaidon 1996).