Posts Tagged ‘Crisis’

Refuting Anti-Semitism Smears with the Reasonableness Test: Part 1

May 25, 2018

In this post, I intend to critique and refute one of the arguments used by lawyers for the Israel lobby to support the anti-Semitism smears. This is that a comment may be fairly considered as anti-Semitic, even if this is denied by the person who made it, simply because somebody else may consider it as such. This is the argument used by the prosecution lawyers against the Black anti-racist and anti-Nazi activist, Marc Wadsworth in his trial by the Labour party. Wadsworth has a long history of defending Black civil rights. He also was instrumental in changing the law on racial harassment in concert with the Board of Deputies of British Jews after a spate of attacks on Jews following the election of the BNP’s Derek Beacon to a place on one of the London councils in the 1990s. He is in no way any kind of anti-Semite. But he is left-wing, and so Ruth Smeeth, a Blairite and supporter of Israel, accused him of anti-Semitism when he remarked on her passing information to a Telegraph journalist at a press conference. Smeeth immediately whined that this was anti-Semitic, as it was accusing her of being part of a conspiracy. Just like Nazis accuse Jews conspiring to enslave gentiles. In fact, Wadsworth’s comment made no reference to Judaism at all, and he didn’t even know she was Jewish. He states that his lawyers at the trial refuted every one of the prosecution’s arguments. Until they took a call from their lawyers, who advised them that they could still win if they claimed that another person could consider it anti-Semitic.

In many parts of the law it sometimes does come down to the question of whether a person would consider that the issue in question is the case. But there’s a proviso. It has to be a reasonable person. And in many cases where the anti-Semitism argument is used, the parallels between real Nazi doctrines or symbolism are so tenuous, that they have less similarity to what a reasonable person would be live, than with the barking mad ideas of conspiracy theorists and rumour-mongers.

Let’s take the symbolism the Board of Deputies of British Jews claimed to find in the position of a fallen Palestinian protester in a story in the 1990s comic, Crisis. Created by Pat Mills and a group of three Jews, the story was about Israel’s maltreatment and brutalisation of the Palestinians. In it, a member of the IDF beats up a Palestinian protester, breaking his limbs so that he lies awkwardly on the ground. Pat Mills is the creator of 2000 AD, and one of the major forces behind Action and the war comic, Battle. As readers of 2000AD will know, Mills is very left-wing, and a firm and very vocal opponent of racism. This is a very clear subtext in the strips Nemesis the Warlock, where a future human empire wages a war of extermination against aliens based on no more than racial prejudice, and Strontium Dog. This is set in a future where mutants are second-class citizens, forced to live in ghettos and forbidden to pursue any job other than bounty hunter. And I’ve said before that it was in the pages of Battle that I first encountered stories dealing with the Holocaust and the concentration camps. This was simply a story where a British squaddie fights his way to one of the camps and sees the emaciated inmates through the barbed wire. I can remember myself being shocked by the prisoners skeletal, emaciated appearance. As I was supposed to. The comic couldn’t show anything too explicit, but what it showed was enough. Enough to show that the Nazis weren’t just responsible for an horrific war that claimed 40 million European lives, but also for scarcely imaginable horrors perpetrated against Jews, and other racial and political minorities and dissidents. And their should be no doubt also that Mills’ co-creators on the Crisis strip were decent, self-respecting Jews, and not self-hating anti-Semites either.

But the Board ignored all this. They claimed the scene was anti-Semitic, because the position made by the Palestinian’s fallen body looked like a swastika.

This is clearly bonkers. It’s the view of someone, who has spent so long looking for anti-Semitic and Nazi imagery, that they’re finding it wherever they look. In this instance, it did the Board no good because Robert Maxwell, the comic’s publisher, stood up to the Board and told them where they could go. But the ruling that something is anti-Semitic, if someone else considers it is, makes future decisions like Maxwell’s much more problematic.

Self-described anti-racists finding what they want to find in popular culture, and making stupid claims of racism, aren’t confined to Jews and anti-Semitism. Way back in the 1990s one Black academic made a similar claim about the film Aliens. This was the sequel to Ridley Scott’s classic Alien. Directed by James Cameron, this had Ripley join a team of Space Marines as they went to wipe out the Aliens, who had attacked and killed the colonists on their planet. Moving through the Aliens’ nest, Ripley finds the Alien queen, laying her eggs which will hatch the next generation of face-huggers.

It was a straightforward SF/Horror yarn. But not according to this academic. She declared that it was a metaphor for Reagan’s America. The Alien Queen represented Black American ‘welfare queens’, who were a threat to White society and conservative values by threatening to drown everybody else with the children they brought into the world. It’s quite a bizarre theory, as nowhere in the film is there any explicit or even implicit comment about race. Except that the Marines themselves are thoroughly multicultural, with a Black sergeant, and a tough, Hispanic female squaddie, Vasquez. And the only feature the Aliens have in common with Black people is their colour. In every other respect they’re vastly different. But it shows how some people’s determination to find a political or racial subtext in a movie leads them to see things that aren’t there.

Continued in Part Two.

Review: Joe Sacco’s ‘Palestine’

May 12, 2018

(London: Jonathan Cape 2001)

This is one of the classics of the graphic novel. Joe Sacco is an American journalist. He spent two months with the Palestinians in late 1991 and early 1992 in Gaza and the West Bank during the time of the first Intifada. He wrote and drew Palestine after his return to the US, basing it on his notes, publishing it as a nine-part comic strip. These were later collected into a single volume to form the graphic novel. The book also has a kind of introduction, ‘Homage to Joe Sacco’, from Edward Said, the author of Orientalism, critic of western imperialism and attitudes to the Arabs, and himself a Palestinian.

This is precisely the type of book the Israel lobby does not want people to read. Not BICOM, not the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism, which was set up because Gideon Falter, its founder, was worried about British attitudes becoming more hostile to Israel after the blockade of Gaza, not the Jewish Labour Movement, formerly Paole Zion and the companion party to the Israeli Labor Party, not the various ‘Friends of Israel’ societies in the political parties, Tories and Labour, nor the Jewish Leadership Council and definitely not the Board of Deputies of British Jews. All of them shout ‘anti-Semitism’ at anyone who dares to publish anything critical of Israel, or show the barbarity with which it treats the Palestinians.

The book shows Sacco’s experiences as he goes around Israel, the West Bank and Gaza, talking to both Palestinians and Israelis, meeting them, entering their homes, and listening to their stories. He starts the book in Cairo, the beginning of his journey to Israel, and to which he returns at his departure. During his time there, he visits the Vale of Kidron, the Arab quarter of Old Jerusalem, Hebron, Ramallah, Jabalia refugee camp in the Gaza strip, as it then was, Balata, another refugee camp on the West Bank, Nablus, the town of Gaza itself, and finally Tel Aviv.

It’s not an easy read. This is an occupied country during deep unrest, and the threat of violence and arbitrary arrest and detention without trial is every where. There are patrols of soldiers, demonstrations, explosions and stone throwing. And he shows, with quotes, the contemptuous, lofty and hostile attitude the early Zionists and Lord Balfour had for the indigenous population. He quotes Balfour as saying

‘Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long tradition, in present needs, in future hopes, of far profounder import than the desire and prejudices of 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit this ancient land. We do not propose even to go through the form of consulting the wishes of the inhabitants’.

Ben Gurion thought it would be simple to expel the Palestinians, because he felt they had no real attachment to their homeland. He wrote that the Palestinian ‘is equally at ease whether in Jordan, Lebanon or a variety of other places’. With the approach of war, he made it clear their expulsion was going to be through military force: ‘In each attack a decisive blow should be struck, resulting in the destruction of homes and the expulsion of the population.’ When that was done, ‘Palestinian Arabs have only one role – to flee’. He also quotes Golda Meir, who stated that a Palestinian people, defining itself as a Palestinian people, did not exist, and ‘we came and threw them out and took their country away from them. They do not exist’. 400 Palestinian villages were razed in the war marking the birth of Israel. Meir’s lie – that the Palestinians don’t exist as a people – is still repeated by Republican and pro-Israel bloggers. Golda Meir was also concerned about the Palestinian population outstripping that of the Israelis, another issue that is still very alive today.

His hosts are polite, welcoming him into their homes, and plying him with tea. But occasionally there is an outburst from one of them, when he’s asked what the point of him being there, of them talking to him, is. Because other journalists have been there too, and they’ve talked to them, and nothing has happened, nothing has changed. They also talk to him about the other factions, and of the peace process. In a separate text at the beginning of the book, he states that, while the peace process set up the Palestinian authority and gave them a government, it changed nothing for ordinary Palestinians, and the occupation and theft of land by the Israelis still goes on.

He also reveals that the Israelis appropriate 2/3 of the land in the West Bank for their own us, which includes the establishment of Israeli settlements, which are illegal under international law. And the governments gives Israelis plenty of incentives to move to them. They’re given a government grant if they do, lower interest rates on loan, the housing itself is cheaper than in Israel, and an income tax rate of 7 per cent. The settlers themselves can be extremely aggressive. Sacco’s hosts tell them about incidents where settlers have come into Palestinian villages, smashing windows and demanding that the owners come out. Of people shot by them, and the trivial sentences given to the settlers guilty of this. They’re given jail sentences of a few months. If they’re convicted in the first place. Palestinians who shoot and kill Israelis are jailed for years. Some lavish homes do exist in Palestine, occupied by Arabs, but most live in very bare houses, often with leaking roofs, which are vulnerable to storms.

His cartoons show what his Palestinian hosts tell him it’s like in prison camps like Ansar III, with crowds of prisoners crammed into small, bare rooms with no heat and poor ventilation. There are also few eating utensils, to the various political factions in the camp – Fateh, Hamas, Popular Front, organise meal times so that everyone gets a turn with the cup and plate to eat and drink. Several of the people he talks to were arrested simply on suspicion. Israeli law allowed them to be held without charge while evidence was compiled, with his captors returning to court over and over again to request a few more days more, until the judge finally listens to their lawyer, has the procedure stopped and the prisoner released. He also shows how the prisoners were tortured through beatings, being forced to stand for hours with bags over their heads, a process permitted under Israel law. A judge ruled that torture could not be used, but what methods were to replace them were kept secret. So many Palestinians have been incarcerated, that a green identity card showing a man has been in jail is a matter of pride. And not to have been to prison correspondingly is a mark of shame.

He talks about how the Israelis have a deliberate policy of not allowing the Palestinians to industrialise, so that they compete with the Israel. The State has also put obstacles in place to prevent Palestinian farmers competing with Israelis. They also deliberately uproot the olive trees many Palestinians grow to support themselves. The Israelis also appropriate most of the water, and dig deeper wells, so that the Palestinians have a much poorer water supply and their own wells are becoming increasingly saline. As a result, unemployment in Gaza was at 40 per cent. And Sacco himself was approached several times by Palestinians, hoping he could do something so that they could leave and go abroad to study or find work.

He describes a school, without electricity, as well as a school for the deaf, which is supported through volunteers and whose staff complain of their lack of training for dealing with people with disabilities. He also hears and illustrates the story of one Palestinian woman, whose son was shot by Israeli soldiers, but was prevented from taking him directly to hospital. Instead she was ordered to go hither and thither, where she was told a helicopter was waiting to take her and the boy. When she gets there, there is no helicopter. She eventually takes him to the hospital herself in a car, by which time it’s too late and the lad dies.

The book also shows the mass of roadblocks and the permit system which Palestinians have to go through to go to Israel. At the same time, Israelis are simply allowed to whiz through in their separate lanes.

Sacco also doesn’t shy away from showing the negative side of Palestine – the anti-Semitism, and particularly infamous murders, like the killing of Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro, and the massacre of the Israeli Olympic team by the terrorist group Black September. This can turn into support for the murder of Israeli civilians. There’s also a chapter on the plight of Palestinian women, This is a society where women are still very much treated as inferiors and subordinates, where honour killings are carried out as the punishment for female adultery. It is also a society where collaborators are murdered, and those, who belong to the wrong faction may also be shot and killed.

The book was written 27 years ago, but nothing really seems to have changed since then. The illegal settlements are still there and expanding. Settlers are still seizing Palestinian homes and property, the apartheid separating Israelis from Palestinians is still in place, unemployment is still high, and Palestinians are still being treated as foreigners, refugees and second-class citizens on their own land.

However, some attitudes are changing. The Israeli liberals Sacco talks to only support the Palestinians up to a point. When pressed, some of them will say that Israel should keep the Occupied Territories, because they seized them in war. Or that they need to keep them for security reasons. But an increasing number of young Jews in America and elsewhere are appalled at the continuing maltreatment of the Palestinians and are becoming increasingly critical and hostile to Israel because of this. And there have also grown up major opposition groups like the human rights organisation B’Tselem and Breaking the Silence in Israel.

The Israeli state and its lobby and supporters in this country and others are increasingly scared. It’s why they’re trying to pass laws to criminalise the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in America, and to outlaw criticism of Israel in this country through tortuous definitions of anti-Semitism that are stretched to include it. It’s why they’re smearing, with the connivance of the right-wing media, the Blairites in the Labour party, and the Conservatives, decent people, who have fought racism and anti-Semitism, as anti-Semites.

Very long, detailed books have been written about Israel’s brutal treatment, dispossession and ethnic cleansing of the Palestinians. Sacco’s Palestine presenting this as graphic novel, is an example of how comics can also be serious literature, tackling a difficult subject with both narrative and artistic skill and style. I’ve mentioned on this blog before the alternative comics that were also published from the ’60s to the 1980s/1990s on political topics, including the Israeli maltreatment of Palestinians in Pat Mills’ Crisis. Palestine is very much in that tradition, and in 1996 won the American Book Award.

The BDJ’s Attempted Accusation of Anti-Semitism in Pat Mills’ ‘Crisis’

April 3, 2018

Pat Mills is the creator of 2000 AD, the Galaxy’s greatest comic, and the co-creator of many of the favourite characters in modern British comics, like Judge Dredd and Slaine, as well as the creator of the anti-war comic strip, Charley’s War, in the British war comic, Battle. Crisis was an explicitly political strip Mills’ launched in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Its ‘Third World War’ strip tackled the politics of food and the exploitation of the Developing World. Mills was also not afraid to tackle other controversial subjects. He was contacted by Amnesty International to do a story about the oppression of the Palestinians by the Israelis. He did, and inevitably the Board of Deputies of British Jews complained about anti-Semitism.

Mills is absolutely no kind of racist or anti-Semite, as you can tell by reading his strips. Many of them tackled racism and bigotry. The mutant heroes of Strontium Dog, for example, were forbidden by law to pursue any other job except bounty hunter, and were kept isolated from the non-mutated rest of humanity in ghettoes. And under the dictator Nelson Bunker Kreelman, there was an organised campaign by the British authorities to wipe them out. The Nemesis the Warlock strip was also a metaphorical treatment of racial and religious persecution. The villain of this strip, Torquemada, named after the head of the Spanish Inquisition, was the grand master of a feudal order thousands of years in Earth’s future, who were dedicated to exterminating all intelligent alien life. The treatment of the issues were metaphorical, but they had their basis in their bigotry and intolerance that has marred human history.

Mills describes the incident on page 155 of his book Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD and Judge Dredd: The Secret History:

There were many more ordinary hero stories I would have loved to have produced. Eventually, Amnesty commissioned me to write an Amnesty issue of Crisis. And there were also plans for me [to] do something with Campaign Against Arms Trade. For Amnesty, I wrote about the death penalty in South Africa and Palestinian youth in the Gaza Strip. Both were illustrated by Sean Phillips. One Palestinian kid was so beaten up by the Israeli forces, Sean showed him lying there with his legs and arms a twisted angles.

When it appeared, the watchdog organisation, the Jewish Board of Deputies, complained to Robert Maxwell that this kid’s limbs were in the shape of a swastika. No concern about the kid himself. Or no interest in the story: a damning indictment of the brutality of the Israeli forces. It was like the Board were looking at faces in the fire and seeing what they wanted to see. But they couldn’t try their usual anti-Semitic allegations, which often successfully shuts us all up, because the three key organisers on the project were Jewish. Sara Selwood, Dan Green and Igor Goldkind. They couldn’t all be dismissed as self-haters. Surprisingly, Robert Maxwell, of all people, and hardly a self-hater either, told the Board to get lost. I can get behind his response.

This is the Board of Deputies of British Jews, which is now backing the fake anti-Semitism smears against Corbyn, and which, along with the Jewish Labour Movement, is now moaning about how he’s not really serious about tackling anti-Semitism. Because instead of meeting them, he went off to spend a Passover seder with Jewdas, a left-wing Jewish religious group instead. Which to me shows how pompous and arrogant they are, in claiming that they alone speak for the British Jewish community, when there are many other Jewish groups like Jewdas, who have put their full support behind the Labour leader.

Mills also goes on to describe how he also tackled other controversial topics in the strip, such as the British suppression of the Mau Mau in Kenya. Drawn by John Hicklenton, one of the artists who drew Nemesis the Warlock, the strip was so horrifying that the staid printers threatened not to print it. ‘But’, writes Mills, ‘we got it through and I’m proud to have shed light on at least one aspect of our country’s evil colonial past.’ (pp.155-6).

This would have been very controversial when it appeared, especially as many of the documents were still classified until only a decade or so ago. The British army’s repression of the Mao Mao was indeed horrific, with internment, torture, mutilation and massacre. There’s a book about it, Africa’s Secret Gulags, and a few years ago a group of former Kenyan internees won a court case against the British government for what they had suffered at the hands of the army. This is one of a number of areas where comics in the 1980s did tackle contemporary politics, and stood up for the poor, marginalised and oppressed in Thatcher’s Britain.

I’m not sure Mills would have been so lucky with the strip on Palestine today, though. As we’ve seen, the Israel Lobby now has absolutely no qualms about smearing whole masses of decent, self-respecting Jews as self-hating anti-Semites, as well as respectable, sincerely anti-racist non-Jews. This is utterly despicable, and it’s disgraceful that the Board should be a willing party to such foul libels.

Pat Mills – Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! 2000AD and Judge Dredd: The Secret History: Part Three

March 30, 2018

Although the comic has been revived and managed very successfully by Rebellion and its new editor for the past 15 or so years, some of the joy has gone. The close collaboration between writers and artists has disappeared, and the editor himself avoids close contact with the other creators. This is partly because of budget and time constraints. The attitude throughout the industry now seems to be one of diligent, quiet efficiency, rather than some of the fun-filled, boisterous meetings Mills and the others had, acting out what they wanted the characters to do in an atmosphere of playful fun. Not that it was always the case. Mills also worked hard, and as an editor he was often called up to deal with artists experiencing some form of crisis, including trying to stop one fellow from committing suicide. But the underlying cause of the decline in British comics remains unaddressed. This is the lack of ownership by the creators for their work. He states that this is the real reasons comics are declining, not computer games. They have those in France, but kids are still reading comics. He also talks about the immense fun he had over there with his Requiem: Vamnpire Knight strip, also available in English translation on the Net.

Mills also talks about some of the other strips he has worked on, which have influenced 2000AD, such as Battle, the notorious Action, Crisis and Toxic. Battle was a war comic, which Mills subverted with Charlie’s War, a First World War strip which had an anti-war message. Mills has come across a number of men, who joined the army through reading such comics. He’s very proud that Charlie’s War had the opposite effect, and after reading it one young lad decided he really didn’t want to after all. Mills is very political, and criticises British literature for its lack of working class heroes. He sees this as partly deliberate, as so many of the great adventure writers were connected to the Intelligence Services and the secret state. Names like John Buchan, Dennis Wheatly – who would have been gauleiter of London, had Hitler conquered Britain – and Ian Fleming. He describes how the script editor of Dr. who in the ’80s turned down a story he’d written, as it included a spaceship captain who was working class. The story has since been made into a CD adventure by Big Finish, and there have been absolutely no complaints.

Action was initially suspended, and then banned outright for its violence. It was also controversial as the first strip to feature a sympathetic, non-Nazi German hero in Hellman of Hammer Force. The comic was so hated by respectable society, that one of the presenters of Nationwide, a 70s current affairs magazine show pretty much like today’s One Show, tore a copy up on camera in front of one of the writers. After it returned, the violence because even more over the top to the point where it shocked Mills, leading to its eventual ban.

Mills is unhappy with SF as a vehicle for social comment, as he feels it is ducking the issue. And so he created Crisis and its Third World War strip, which was all about the exploitation of the Developing World and the politics of food. He’s particularly proud of one story about the scandal of Nestle’s baby milk. But this was completely beyond management’s ability to understand why he included this issue in a boy’s comic.

And Mills and his co-creators were also accused of anti-Semitism by the Board of Deputies of British Jews. They did a story about Palestinian, in which a militarised cop, or a member of the IDF, beats a protester so badly, that they break all his limbs, and he falls to the ground. The Board complained that the man’s broken body resembled a swastika, which shows they were reading things into it which weren’t there. The three other creators of the story were Jews, and Mills thought that the Board couldn’t accuse them all of being self-hating. The strip was published by Robert Maxwell, who told them where they could stuff their idea. He was a crook, who robbed the Mirror’s pension fund, but here he did the right thing. You can beat the Israel lobby if you stand up to them.

Mills is clearly a hard-working, passionate enthusiast for comics, and a determined supporter of his fellow writers and artist. He wishes the industry to go back and try to appeal again to young children, although he makes the point they’re ruder than the adult fans, with whom you can have interesting conversations at conventions. He admits that its much harder now to get published in 2000AD, but not impossible, and gives valuable, careful advice to aspiring writers and artists.

As well as a fascinating account of the rise and career of 2000AD, it was for me also quite a nostalgic read. I remember some of the strips Mills wrote for and created, including the comics Whizzer and Chips, Battle and Action. I have mixed feelings about Action. I enjoyed strips like One-Eyed Jack and Death Game 1999, based on the film Rollerball. I wasn’t so keen on Dredger, which did have some horrifying stories. One of these was a Russian dissident punished by having his brain gradually removed by surgery until he was vegetable, and another tale in which a foreign politician is murdered. Sulphuric acid is poured into his shower so that he literally goes down the drain. But the strip I really didn’t like was ‘Kids Rule UK’, set in a future where all adults had died, and Britain was run by violent kid’s gangs. I was bullied at school, and this was for me an all-too frightening concept. I also stopped reading 2000AD for a time, because the stories there were a bit too sadistic. Which was a pity, as I later found out, because I missed some great strips.

2000AD will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary in a decade’s time, thanks to the inspiration of Pat Mills and his fellow creators. And I hope that afterwards the comic will go on to enjoy another fifty years under new, equally enthusiastic, committed and inspiring creators.

Splundig vur Thrigg, as the Mighty Tharg used to say.

Pat Mills and Anti-Racism and Anti-Nazism in British and American Comics

September 22, 2017

This week I’ve put up a number of articles about a couple of interviews I’ve found on YouTube with the long-time British comics creator, Pat Mills. Mills was one of the recidivist offenders, who revitalized a moribund British comics industry in the 1970s with a succession of groundbreaking new magazines the war comic, Battle, Action, and, of course, the mighty 2000AD. Mills is of Irish heritage and distinctly left-wing, so that his sympathies are always with the poor and the persecuted against the establishment, and there was more than a little element of subversion in his strips. Judge Dredd from the first was meant to be a symbol of the Fascistic elements in modern American policing, and J.D. is as much villain as he is hero. The mutant heroes of the Strontium Dog strip are second-class citizens in a future Britain which barely tolerates them. They can only live in ghettoes, and the only work they can do by law is bounty hunting. It’s an explicit comment on racism and anti-Semitism. Nemesis the Warlock was a similar attack on religious bigotry, set as it was in a devastated Earth of the far future, ruled by Tomas de Torquemada and his terminators. They were a military order of warriors, who had whipped up fear and hatred of intelligent aliens and embarked on a series of holy wars to exterminate them across the Galaxy. This was partly based on the medieval inquisition in Roman Catholic Europe, with elements of modern Fascism. For example, the robes adopted by the Terminators recalled Ku Klux Klan costumes.

Comics at the time were increasingly focused on the issue of racism and persecution, particularly in the case of Marvel Comic’s X-Men. The mutants in this strip, like those of Johnny Alpha’s nuclear-scarred Britain, were also persecuted. One of the recurring villains in the strip were the Sentinels, a race of giant robots created to hunt down and kill robots by the stock mad scientist in the belief that this would preserve humanity from the threat to their survival the super-powered mutants – Homo Superior – represented. Another of Mighty Marvel’s villains was the Hate Monger, dedicated to whipping up bigotry and strife. This character also wore a costume based on the Klan, and was revealed as Hitler, or a clone of him.

The American comics industry was founded by German Jews, who brought with them their former homeland’s tradition of telling a story through a series of pictures derived from Wilhelm Busch. I think many of them had also seen combat fighting against Nazism in the army during the War. It’s therefore not hard to see in strips such as the X-Men a metaphorical treatment of the persecution of the Jewish people, as well as other outsider groups. As well as being a metaphor for racism, the X-Men also had an large following of gay young people, possibly because the social hostility shown in the strips towards its mutant heroes mirrored their own experiences as marginalized outsiders.

And concerns over the threat of Fascism were also seen in other British comics. The British version of the Captain Britain strip, written by Dave Thorpe and then Alan Moore, was set in an alternative Britain in which a deranged, mutant aristocrat, Mad Jim Jaspers, had created a biomechanical creature to hunt down and exterminate all mutants. At the same time, he had encouraged a Fascist dictatorship to seize power, which then began the process of persecuting and exterminating mutants.

This was succeeded by Moore’s V for Vendetta in the adult comic, Warrior, which featured an anonymous guerilla, V, fighting a personal war against the Fascist authorities of a near-future Britain. It was filmed with Hugo Weaving as ‘V’, Natalie Portman as his companion, Evie, with Stephen Fry as a gay TV host and John Hurt as the dictator. Moore himself dislikes the movie, partly because the contract he signed with the studio meant that the character is now their property. But it is a powerful film, which accurately shows certain aspects of Nazism, such as the use of concentration camp inmates for medical experimentation.

Pat Mills also says in the interviews I posted about earlier this week that the strip Charley’s War was subversive in that it was anti-war strip in a war comic. Mills is disappointed by the way the strip wasn’t included in an exhibition on comics and subversion, and notes that in this, the centenary years of the First World War, there seems to be a deliberate policy amongst the British broadcasters of not showing anything with an anti-war content, such as Blackadder Goes Forth. Radio 4 have made shows about the great stage play and film, Oh, What a Lovely War!, but it wasn’t that long ago that Michael Gove, the Tory minister for education, opened his mouth to say that children were getting an entirely wrong view of the War based on Blackadder. Mike naturally wrote a very sharp reply to that piece of nonsense.

But there were other strips in Battle, which also rose out of the mass of the usual gung-ho stories of courageous British squaddies winning against brutal and stupid Germans, and which did shock with their realism. Darkie’s Mob, which was about a mysterious commander, who takes over a failing British unit trapped behind Japanese lines in Burma was one of these. Another I remember which particularly shocked me was a short piece in Battle, in which British soldiers are fighting their way through Germany. I think it was a stand-alone strip, rather than part of a continuing storyline. The story ended when the squaddies reach a group of emaciated figures standing behind barbed wire, the inmates of one of the death camps. This was clearly about the Holocaust, and what it was really like, rather than the usual glamorous war stories, and I remember being shocked by the starved bodies of the inmates. As I doubtless was supposed to.

Battle, Action, 2000AD and Warrior were part of a trend that had emerged in American comics in the late 1960s, when they turned from simple escapism to dealing with real issues – such as racism and feminism. British comics up to the launch of Battle and Action had tended to avoid explicit politics, and in some cases had actually been very racist. And this tradition of commenting and attacking racism and bigotry continues in American comics today, and in 2000AD, now sadly nearly all that’s remaining of the British comics industry.

These are the type of strips, which Mike and I grew up reading, along with so many others of our age group. And they reflected the very real anxieties of the time. Left-wingers were worried about the rise of Maggie Thatcher, her links to the hard right and the violence and political threat posed by the BNP/NF. In the original comic strip version of V for Vendetta, the Fascists seize power in Britain after devastating nuclear war between America and the Soviet Union over the crisis in Poland. To many of us, the threat of nuclear annihilation in Maggie’s and Reagan’s New Cold War was only too real.

In his talk to the Socialist Workers’ Party, Mills reads out a letter he received from the CEO of a school, a former punk, who states that everything he learned about Fascism, he got from Judge Dredd; everything about racism, from Strontium Dog, and everything about feminism from Halo Jones. And he now considered it the most subversive thing he could do was to help produce open-minded, critical young people. And it isn’t just racism. When Thatcher tried to criminalise positive teaching of homosexuality in school – that it is perfectly natural – the British comics industry responded with the anti-homophobia anthology AWRGH!, whose initials stood for Artists and Writers Against Rampant Government Homophobia. Comics in the 1980s and ’90s sold much more than they do now, and so they made a very large number of young people aware and alert to these issues. It partly explains why British society has broadly become more tolerant, despite continuing bigotry in some areas. Like the right-wing of the Tories and UKIP.

This is also why I found Mills’ story of how the Board of Deputies of British Jews complained about a story in Crisis utterly amazing. Crisis was another adult comic, which dealt explicitly with contemporary issues of western imperialism, the power of the multinationals and the exploitation of the Developing World. The comic had featured a story about the beating of a Palestinian protester in Gaza, based on a real event told to Mills by a Palestinian. The Board complained because the lad’s broken body, left lying in the road, looked to them a bit like a swastika. As Mills himself said, it wasn’t there because comics creators aren’t that clever. But I was left amazed at the thought that anybody could accuse anyone in mainstream British comics at the time of racism or anti-Semitism, given how radical and anti-racist so many of them were.

It’s also why the accusation by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism earlier this year against Mike is so outrageous. I’ve blogged before in Mike’s defence pointing out that he very definitely is not racist and not anti-Semitic, having both Black and Jewish friends and participating at College in a performance commemorating the victims of the Shoah. Mike read these comics, with the anti-racist and anti-bigotry message which they strove to impart to their readers. I realize that no doubt there were many people who read them, without really taking the anti-racist, anti-bigotry subtext onboard, but even so many people in the comics milieu were and are liberal in their attitudes towards tolerance of minority and marginalized groups.

But the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism and the rest of the Zionist lobby have no qualms about smearing genuine anti-racists, and people who have written about and denounced anti-Semitism and other forms of racism and persecution, like Jackie Walker, Ken Livingstone and Tony Greenstein. And there is the real danger that by doing so, not only will they libel and smear decent people, but trivialize real anti-Semitism in doing so.

I’ve blogged earlier this evening about the fine job Richard Coughlan did in producing his videos debunking Holocaust denial. But British and American comics and their creators, like Pat Mills, Alan Moore and Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, the creators of the X-Men, and that strip’s writers and artists since, have also contributed greatly to attacking racism and bigotry in the strips they produced.

Pat Mills Going Underground on Class and Politics on Comics

September 19, 2017

This is another video to add to the two others I’ve posted in which Pat Mills, one of the great creators of modern British comics, talks about industry and the political dimension to his work. In this video, he talks to Afshin Rattansi of RTUK’s Going Underground.

Mills starts by talking about how, when he first got into comics, he was frustrated and it was only when he started to look back on it and analyze it that he realized he was annoyed by the lack of working class role models in comics. They were all members of the upper middle classes. It’s why in 2000 AD he wanted to include working class characters and heroes, and why he liked Jeeves in the Jeeves and Wooster books, because here was a working class character, who makes a complete mockery of his master. But what brought home to him how the system is so completely opposed to working class heroes was his attempt working on a story for Dr. Who. He wanted to include a working class spaceship captain. The spaceship itself was to be a kind of abattoir in space, and he based the captain’s character on a real person, the captain of dredger. This would have made it realistic, and the captain of such a vessel would not have been like Richard Todd. But he was told by the script editor that this was unacceptable, and he could not have a working class spaceship captain.

When Rattansi asks him whether this censorship is internal or imposed from outside, he remarks that it’s a good question, and he believes it to be a bit of both. In the case of anti-war stories, it’s imposed from outside. That was brought home to him when he was involved in an exhibition on anarchy and comics. He wanted to include Charley’s War, the anti-war strip from Battle, as there was nothing more anarchist than that. But this was refused, just as the centenary of the outbreak of the First World. It was why TV never showed any of the great anti-war programmes and films about it, like Blackadder Goes Forth or the Monocled Mutineer.

He also comments on the massive influence the American military exerts over the film and TV industry. The Pentagon and the armed forces, including the CIA, have acted as advisors on 500 films and 800 TV programmes, from Meet the Parents to the Incredible Hulk and Iron Man. Mills has said that he has always disliked superheroes as he feels that they are corporate characters, standing for the values of the system. They are there to show people that you can’t be heroic unless you’re a tycoon or an arms manufacturer, who goes out at night to beat up members of the working class. He doesn’t think the military were involved in the last Judge Dredd film, as that was made by an independent, which is probably why it was so good. Rattansi replies that Dredd is still upper middle class, as he’s a member of the judiciary. Mills states in turn that he’s a footsoldier, and that part of the attraction of the character is that he’s also partly a villain. Villains are often more interesting to watch than heroes, who can be quite boring.

He also talks about an incident in which the Board of the Deputies of British Jews objected to one of the strips in Crisis. This was based on a real situation, which Mills had heard about from talking to a Palestinian. In the story, the IDF caught and beat up a Palestinian boy in protest, leaving lying on the ground with all his limbs broken. The Board complained because they thought the lad’s body had been deliberately arranged so that it resembled a swastika. Well, replied Mills, it wasn’t, as comics writers and artists aren’t that clever to sneak those kind of subliminal messages in. And what left him dismayed was the Board was not concerned about what was going on Israel, and which is still going on in Gaza. The incident was also somewhat ironic, in that the Board complained to the comic’s publishers, which at that time was Robert Maxwell, the corrupt thief of the Mirror pension fund. The Board’s complaint fell on deaf ears, and Cap’n Bob ‘told them to get knotted’.

Mills also observes in the interview that they were able to get away with much more in 2000AD as it wasn’t real, it was science fiction. Things are all right if they occur In A Galaxy Far, Far Away. But as soon as it’s real people, the censorship is imposed.

It’s always interesting hearing Mills’ views on comics and the subversion he put into his stories. He also told the story about the Beeb’s rejection of a working class spaceship captain for Dr. Who before, at the conference on Marxism organized by the Socialist Workers’ Party. The producers of Going Underground in the clip state that they contacted the Beeb to check the story, but the BBC had not replied by the time the programme was broadcast.

Mills is wrong in claiming at Jeeves is working class. He isn’t. He’s upper middle. Butlers are ‘a gentleman’s gentleman’, and Jeeves himself makes it very clear in one of the episodes of Jeeves and Wooster that he ‘and the working class are barely on speaking terms’. This is when the Fascist leader, Spode, tries to recruit him, saying that his wretched band need working class people like him. Nevertheless, the broad point remains true: Jeeves is an attractive character for the same reason another fictional butler is, Crichton, in the Admirable Crichton. He’s a servant, who is more knowledgible, intelligent and capable than his master.

I’ve commented in previous blog posts that I think the reason that the authorities don’t want to see any anti-War material broadcast during the centenary of the First World War, is because we still have ambitions of being an imperial power, backing the Americans in their wars around the world and particularly in the Middle East. The Beeb would also probably argue that to broadcast such material as Blackadder would be ‘disrespectful’, or some other spurious excuse.

I was aware that the American military was influencing Hollywood as advisors, but I had not idea how extensive it was. Back in the 1990s the American army advised the director Paul Verhoeven on his adaptation of Starship Troopers. This was an adaptation of the book by Robert Heinlein, who really did believe that only those, who had served in the armed forces should have the right to vote. It’s a notoriously militaristic book, and provoked a very anti-military response from a range of other SF writers, including Harry Harrison, who wrote Bill the Galactic Hero to send up Heinlein. Verhoeven wasn’t impressed with Heinlein’s militarism either. He’s Dutch, and grew up during the Nazi occupation. Thus, while the film can be enjoyed as a straightforward adventure, it also contains a very strong element of satire, such as modelling the uniforms on those of the Nazis.

I was disappointed to hear that the army had collaborated with the producers of The Hulk, as this comic was genuinely countercultural. In the comic, Banner becomes the Hulk after being exposed to the nuclear blast of an atomic bomb test saving Rick, a teenager, who has wandered into test zone. Rick is a classic disaffected teenager with more than a little similarity to the alienated kids played by James Dean. In the 1970s the comic was very firmly anti-military. The Hulk fought the army across America. Banner’s personal enemy was the general in charge of the forces sent to tackle the force, who was also the father of his girlfriend. And while the Hulk was a raging behemoth, what he really wanted was to be left alone. Some of the subversive character of the Hulk came across in Ang Lee’s film, which I actually like, even though no-one else does. But it’s still disappointing to read that the American armed forces were involved.

There’s a touch of irony to Mills speaking on the programme, as ‘Going Underground’ was the first of the two ‘Comic Rock’ strips to appear in 2000AD, the other being ‘Killerwatt’, which introduced Nemesis the Warlock and his struggle against Torquemada, the Fascist grand master of Termight, Earth in the far future. The story, set in the underground maze of rapid transit tunnels within Earth’s vast subterranean network of cities, took it’s title from the track by The Jam.

Pat Mills Talks to Sasha Simic of the SWP about the Politics of 2000AD

September 15, 2017

This comes from the Socialist Workers’ Party, an organization of which I am not a member and which I don’t support. But this is another really great video, in which one of the great creators of the British comics for over forty years talks about politics, social class, the role of capitalism and women and feminism, not just in 2000AD, but also in comics and publishing generally, and the media.

Mills was speaking as part of annual four day convention the Socialist Workers hold on Marxism. Simic introduces himself as the person, who gets the annual geek slot. As well as a member of the party, he’s also a convener of USDAW. And he’s very happy in this, the centenary of the Russian Revolution, to have on Pat Mills.

Mills starts by saying that as he was growing up in the 50s and 60s, he read the same books everyone else did – John Buchan, Ian Fleming, Dennis Wheatley, Sherlock Holmes and the Scarlet Pimpernel. But there was something about it that made him angry, and it was only looking back on it that he came to realise that what infuriated him was the fact that these were all authors from the upper and middle classes, who created heroes from those class backgrounds. He makes the point that these were good writers, but that some of their work was very sinister the more you go into it. Like John Buchan. Buchan was the major propagandist of the First World War. Mills says that Alistair Campbell, Tony Blair’s infamous spin doctor, had nothing on him. He promoted the First world War, for which he was rewarded with the governorship of Canada.
He states that he doesn’t want to go too far into it as he’ll start ranting. Nevertheless, he’s glad to be able to talk to the people at the SWP’s convention, as it means they have a similar opinion to him, and he doesn’t have to censor himself.

He makes the point that there are very, very few working class heroes, and believes this is quite deliberate. It’s to deprive working people of a strong role. When the working people do appear, it’s as loyal batmen, or sidekicks, and there is an element of parody there. And it’s not just in comics and literature. In the 1980s he was contacted by the producers of Dr. Who to do a story. He wanted to have a working class spaceship captain. He was told by the script editor that they couldn’t. They also didn’t like his idea to have a working class family. It was only by looking back on where this hatred of the heroes of traditional literature came from, that he came to realise that it wasn’t just that he didn’t want to have any generals in his work.

He also talks about how it’s easier to get away with subversion in comics, as comics are treated as a trivial form of literature, which nobody really cares about. The profit motive also helps. So long as it’s making money, comics companies don’t care what’s going on. And this explains how he was able to get away with some of the things he did in Battle. He states that the way he works is by pretending to write something mainstream and inoffensive, and then subvert it from within. An example of that is Charley’s War in Battle. This looks like an ordinary war strip, but in fact was very anti-war. Even so, there were times when he had to be careful and know when to give up. One of these was about a story he wanted to run about the entry of the Americans into the War. In this story, a group of White American squaddies are members of the Klan, and try to lynch a Black soldier. Charley wades in to help the Black guy. The management rejected the story on the grounds that they didn’t want anything too controversial. Mills decided to draw in his horns and bite his tongue at that point, because he had a bigger story lined up about the British invasion of Russian in 1919, when we sent in 20-30,000 men. It was, he says, our Vietnam, and has been whitewashed out of the history books.

He also makes the point that subversion was also present in the girls’ comics. Even more so, as there was a psychological angle that wasn’t present in the boys’. For example, there was one story called ‘Ella in Easy Street’, where a young girl reacts against her aspirational family. They want to get on, and so the father has two jobs, and the mother is similarly working very hard to support their aspirations. But Ella herself is unhappy, as it’s destroying what they are as a family. And so she sets out to sabotage their yuppie dream. Mills says that it’s not all one-dimensional – he looks at the situation from both sides, pro and con, but the story makes the point that there are things that are more important that materialism and social advancement, like family, comradeship. He says that such a story could not be published now. It’s rather like The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, where the hero, in the end, throws the race as a way of giving the system the finger.

Mills reminds his audience just how massive girls’ comics were in the ’70s. They were bigger, much bigger, than the boys’. 2000AD sold 200,000 copies a week in its prime. But Tammy, one of the girls’ comics, sold 260,000. This is really surprising, as women read much more than we men. These comics have all disappeared. This, he says, is because the boys’ took over the sandpit. He has been trying to revive them, and so a couple of stories from Misty have been republished in an album.

This gets him onto the issue of reaching the audience, who really need it. In the case of the stories from Misty, this has meant that there are two serials on sale, both of which are very good, but in a book costing £17 – odd. The only people going to read that are the mothers of the present generation of girls, perhaps. To reach the girls, it needs to be set at a lower price they can afford. This is also a problem with the political material. If you write something subversive, it will receive glowing reviews but be bought by people, who already agree with you. He wants his message to get further out, and not to become a coffee table book for north London.

He talks about the way British comics have grown up with their readership, and the advantages and disadvantages this has brought. British comics has, with the exception of 2000AD, more or less disappeared, and the readership of that comic is in its 30s and 40s. People have put this down to demographics and the rise of computer games, saying that this was inevitable. It wasn’t. It was our fault, says Mills. We fumbled it. Games workshop still have young people amongst their audience, while the French also have computer games across the Channel, but their children are reading comics.

Mills goes on to say that it’s easier writing for adults. Writing for 9 and 10 year olds is much harder, because if they don’t like a story, they’ll say. He says to his audience that they may think the same way, but they’re much too polite to say it at conventions. And they had to respond to their young readers as well, as the kids voted on it every week. They’d tell you if they thought it was a bad story, even if you thought it was the best one so far, and asked yourself what was wrong with the little sh*ts.

He also talks about how difficult it is to break into comics. He has friends, who have been trying for decades to get into 2000AD, and have been unsuccessful. His advice to people trying to do so is: don’t bother. There’s nothing wrong with you, it’s 2000AD. And this also effects text publishing. All the publishers have now been bought up, so that HarperCollins have the fingers in everything, such as Hodder and Stoughton. And their politics aren’t ours.

The way round this is to get into web publishing. Here he digresses and talks about pulp fiction, which is a close relative of comics. He was talking to a guy at a convention, who writes pulp fiction and puts it on the net. It only costs a few pence. The man writes about a zombie apocalypse, but – and this is true, as he’s seen the payment slips – he’s pulling in £3,000 a month. Mills says that this is important as well. He wants to get his material out there, but he also wants to eat. This shows you how you can make money publishing it yourself. Later on in the video, after the questions and the comments from the audience, he goes further into this. He mentions some of the web publishers, one of which is subsidiary of Amazon, which will allow people to publish their own work. He also talks about self-publishing and chapbooks. He found out about these while writing Defoe, his story about Leveller zombie killer in an alternative 17th century England. Chapbooks were so called because they were cheap books, the cheap literature of the masses. And this is what comics should go back to. He says that everyone should produce comics, in the same way that everyone can also make music by picking up an instrument and playing a few chords.

He also praises some of the other subversive literature people have self-produced. Like one piece satirizing the British army’s recruitment posters. ‘Join the army’, it says, ‘- like prison, but with more fighting’. Mills is fairly sure he knows who wrote that as well. It was another guy he met at a convention, who was probably responsible for the anti-war film on YouTube Action Man: Battlefield Casualties. He enormously admires this film, and is envious of the people, who made it.

He also talks about some of the fan letters he’s had. One was from the CEO of a school, he talks about the way reading 2000AD opened up his mind and changed his moral compass. The man says that everything he learned about Fascism, he learned from Judge Dredd, everything about racism from Strontium Dog, and feminism from Halo Jones. He and his headmaster, whom he names, were both punks and he’s now opened a school in Doncaster. The most subversive thing you can do now is to try to create an open-minded and questioning generation of young people. The letter is signed, yours, from a company director, but not an evil one, and then the gentleman’s name.

He concludes this part of the talk by describing the career of James Clarke, a member of the Socialist Labour Party, the Communist Party, a lion tamer and conscientious objector. During the War he ran escape lines for British squaddies in France. And people say that pacifists are cowards, Mills jokes. How much braver can you be than sticking your head in a lion’s mouth. He wrote a pamphlet defending a group of comrades, who tried to start the revolution by following the example of the Irish Nationalists and blow things up with a bomb. The pamphlet argued that this was wrong, and that if the working class wanted to gain power, they should concentrate on confronting capitalism through direct action. He also wrote poetry. Mills describes Clark as being a kind of Scots Tom Baker. One of these is a biting satire of Kipling’s If. The poem begins by asking if the reader can wake up every morning at 5 O’clock, or 4.30, and then labour at their machines, and see their wives and children suffer deprivation while those, who haven’t earned it take it all the profits, and describes the backbreaking grind of hard working life for the capitalist class in several stanzas. It ends with the statement that if you can do all that, and still be complacent, then go out, buy a gun and blow your brains out.

Clearly, I don’t recommend any actually do this, but it is a witty and funny response to Kipling’s poem. I found it hugely funny, and I do think it’s a great response to what was voted Britain’s favourite poem by the Beeb’s viewers and readers a few years ago. Can you imagine the sheer Tory rage that would erupt if someone dared to recite it on television!

Many of the comments are from people thanking Mills for opening their eyes and for writing such great stories. They include a man, who describes how Mills’ works are on his shelf next to his copy of Das Kapital. Another man describes how he used to buy 2000AD just after going to church on Sunday. So after listening to some very boring sermons, he came back from Baptist chapel to read all this subversion. One young woman says that the zines – the small press magazines, that appeared in the 1990s – seem to be still around, as she has seen them at punk concerts. Another young woman says that although comics are seen as a boys’ thing, when she goes into Forbidden Planet near her, there are always three girls in there and two boys. She also talks about how many young women read Japanese manga. Mills states in reply that manga stories generally are light and frothy, and so not the kind of stories he wants to write. But as for women in comics, he says that he spoken several times to students on graphic novel courses, and each time about 75 per cent of them have been women, which is good.

He also talks about Crisis and Action. The Third World War strip in Crisis was about the politics of food, and was set in a world where food production was dominated by a vast multinational formed by the merger of two of today’s megacorporations. Mills states that when the strip covered what was going on in South America, that was acceptable. However, at one point he moved the story to Brixton, finding a Black co-writer to help with the story. At that point, the White Guardian-reading liberals started to be uncomfortable with it. There was also a story in which Britain leaves the EU. This results in the rise of a Fascist dictatorship, and the EU responds by invading Britain. Mills says that he’s been trying to get Crisis relaunched, but the company are stringing him along with excuses, probably because it’s easier than arguing with him.

Mills obviously did the right thing by finding a Black co-writer. Marvel suffered a barrage of criticism with some of their attempts to launch a series of Black superheroes, like the Black Panther as part of the Blaxploitation wave of the 1970s. The Black Panther was particularly criticized. The creators were old, White dudes, who didn’t understand urban Black culture, even if the comics themselves were sincere in presenting a sympathetic view of Black Americans and combating racism.

He also talks briefly about Action, and the controversy that caused. What really upset Mary Whitehouse and the rest was ‘Kid’s Rule UK’, a strip in which a disease killed everyone over 16, and Britain was inhabited solely by warring street gangs. Mills used to take the same train from where he was living at the time with Mary Whitehouse. He said he was editing a Hookjaw script at the time, and notice Whitehouse over the other side of the carriage looking daggers at him. So he put in more carnage and more arms and legs being bitten off.

One of the most interesting questions is about the politics and morality of Judge Dredd. Dredd is a fascist, and in one of the strips it seemed to take the side of authority over subversion with no irony. This was in a story about the punks taking over Megacity 1. At the end of the strip, Dredd gets hold of the leader, and makes him say, ‘I’m a dirty punk.’ Mills actually agrees with the speaker, and says that there are people, who take Dredd as a role-model. He’s had letters from them, which he doesn’t like. He doesn’t know what these people do. Perhaps they have their own chapterhouse somewhere. He went cold inside when he heard about the story. It wasn’t one of his. It was by John Wagner, who isn’t at all political, but is very cynical, so this has some of the same effects of politics. But 75 per cent of Dredd comes from Mills. Mills states that it’s a flawed character, and that can be seen in why the two Dredd films never did well at the box office. Dredd was based on a particular teacher at his old school, as was Torquemada, the Grand Master of Termight, a genocidally racist Fascist military feudal order ruling Earth thousands of years in the future. They were both two sides of the same coin. That was why he enjoyed humiliating Torquemada. But it isn’t done with Dredd. Yet it could have been different, and there could be instances where people have their revenge on Dredd without losing the power of the character. He states that it was because Chopper did this in the story ‘Unamerican Graffiti’, that this became the favourite Dredd story of all time.

It’s a fascinating insight into the politics of the comics industry. The zines and other self-published small magazines he describes were a product of the Punk scene, where people did start putting together their own fanzines in their bedrooms. It was part of the mass creativity that punk at its height unleashed. As for the web comics, he talks about a couple that he finds particularly impressive, including those by the author of the dystopian science fiction story Y – the Last Man, set in a future in which all the men in the world have been killed by another disease. A number of my friends used to publish their own small press magazines in the 1990s, as did Mike. Mike started his own, small press comic, Violent, as an homage to Action when it was that comics anniversary. Mike was helped by some of the artists and writers from 2000AD, and so some of the tales are very professional. But probably not for delicate, gentle souls.

Amongst SF fandom, chapbooks are small books which another publishes himself. And they have been the route some professionally published authors have taken into print. Stephen Baxter is one of them. I think his Xelee stories first appeared in a chapbook he sold at one of the SF conventions.

Looking back at Kids Rule UK, this was my least favourite strip in Action. I was bullied at school, and so the idea of a Britain, where everything had broken down and there was nothing but bullying and juvenile violence really scared me. Action took many of its strips from the popular culture of the time. Hookjaw was basically Jaws. One-Eyed Jack seemed based very much on the type of hard-boiled American cop shows, if not actually Dirty Harry. One of the SF movies of the late sixties was about an America in which teenagers had seized power, and put all the adults in concentration camps were they were force-fed LSD. One of the four Star Trek stories that were banned on British television until the 1980s was ‘Miri’. In this tale, Kirk, Spock and the others beam down to a planet occupied entirely by children, as all the ‘grups’ – the adults – have been killed by disease. Kids Rule UK seems very much in the same vein as these stories.

Mills’ story about Dr. Who not wanting to show a working class family, let alone a spaceship captain, shows how far the series has come when it was relaunched by Russell T. Davis. Christopher Eccleston basically played the Doctor as northern and working class, wile Rose Tyler’s family and friends were ordinary people in a London tower block. As for not wanting to show a working class spaceship captain, that probably comes from very ingrained class attitudes in the aviation industry. A friend of mine trained as a pilot. When he was studying, their tutor told the class that the British exam included a question no other country in the world required, and which was particularly difficult. He stated that it was put there to weed out people from working or lower middle class backgrounds, as they would fail and not be able to retake the exam, as their competitors from the upper classes could.

It’s great to hear Mills encourage people try to produce their own work, and not be disheartened if they are rejected by mainstream publishers. I’m also saddened by the absence of any comics for children. They offered me when I was a lad an escape into a whole world of fun and imagination. And at their best, they do encourage children to take an interest in real issues like racism, sexism, bigotry and exploitation. I hope some way can be found to reverse their disappearance.

Comics and Political Satire: Diceman’s ‘You Are Ronald Reagan’

October 13, 2016

diceman-reagan-cover

I’ve written a several pieces about comics and political satire and comment. The 1960s counterculture produced underground comics, which dealt with taboo subjects. These included sex, and issues of sexual orientation, such as homosexuality, as well as explicit political commentary and satire. These continued well into the 1980s and 1990s. Over here, adult strips with a strong political content included Crisis, many of the Knockabout stable of comics, and Pete Loveday’s Russell: The Saga of a Peaceful Man. Mainstream comics, such as 2000 AD, also contained elements of satire and political comment, particularly in the strips created and written by veteran recidivist and script droid Pat Mills.

Way back in the 1980s, 2000 AD also launched a spin-off, aimed at the RPG crowd. This followed adventure game books, like the Wizard of Firetop Mountain, in which the reader also played the central character in the adventure, and their decisions reading the book/game determined how it ended for them. 2000 AD’s Diceman was similar, but the games were in comic strip form, rather than simple, unillustrated text. Most of the games were straightforward strips using 2000 AD characters like Slaine, Nemesis the Warlock and Rogue Trooper. There was also the ‘Diceman’ strip of the title, which was about a 1930s occult private eye in America, hunting down weirdness and assorted monsters and human villains assisted by his own occult monster, Astragal, the demon of the dice. The strip was set amongst the grim tenements of Depression era New York, though it could go further afield into Nazi Germany, and so also had more than a little similarity to the Indian Jones films then playing in cinemas. It was based on the writings and life of Charles Hoy Fort, the writer and researcher of the bizarre and weird, such as falls of frogs and other strange events. Fort was the inspiration for the magazine The Fortean Times, which continued Fort’s work of documenting the bizarre and the scientifically ‘damned’. The Fortean inspiration behind Diceman probably came from the fact that many of those involved in the British comics scene, like the late Steve Moore, were also contributors to the FT.

Most of the strips seem to have been written by Pat Mills, and the readership seems to have been somewhat more mature than that of the parent magazine, 2000 AD. So in a couple of them, Pat Mills let rip and dealt explicitly with two of the politicos then running amok on the world stage. These were Maggie Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. Illustrated by the great underground comic artist, Hunt Emerson, these were ‘Maggie Thatcher: A Dole-Playing Game’, and ‘You Are Ronald Reagan’. I found the issue with the latter yesterday looking through a pile of old magazines. Published in issue 5 of the magazine in 1986, the game had the reader take over the brain of the American president and journey back in time to avert an impending nuclear war. During the game you were faced with such tasks as deciding whether to send the troops into Nicaragua, negotiating arms reductions with the Soviet president, Mikhail Gorbachev, researching your family tree to boost your popularity with the American electorate, and trying to prevent a full scale nuclear war with Russia. While also trying to sort out what to do about Britain and Maggie’s plea to turn it into America’s 51st State. The reader also had to successfully maintain the illusion that they were indeed the real Ronald Reagan. If they didn’t, they were fried in the electric chair as a Commie infiltrator. Along with Maggie and various aides, one of the whom looked like an American eagle, was Reagan’s buddy, Bonzo the Superchimp, named after Reagan’s co-star in the film Bedtime for Bonzo.

Some idea of the style – both visual and narrative – of the strip can be seen in the sample page below.

diceman-reagan-1

The strip mostly has a light touch, even when Reagan fails to avert World War 3 and civilisation is ended in a nuclear holocaust. But it dealt with extremely serious issues. For example, nearly all of the options for solving the crisis in Nicaragua involved military force to a greater or lesser extent, and all of them would result in misery for the people of that nation. Which were illustrated with the same depiction of starving peasants and crying children for all of the choices. As with many of Mills’ strips, it was based on solid research, with some of the books consulted listed at the end of the strip, along with the terrifying real incidents where the world had come close to nuclear war through mistakes and stupidity.

The strip was also similar to some of the computer games then being created for the new generation of home computers, like the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum. Some of these also had a satirical slant, including one called The Tebbitt. This followed the Tolkienesque adventure game format, but you played a politician running around Whitehall trying to solve political issues. Hence the title, in which the name of one of Thatcher’s cabinet thugs, Norman Tebbitt, was substituted for The Hobbit.

Sadly, Diceman didn’t last long. There are still underground comic strips and graphic novels with a strong political content. Counterpunch a few weeks ago carried an article about one attacking the current situation in America. And two years ago Mills announced another graphic novel containing an anthology of strips to counter the establishment propaganda about the First World War. Role-Playing Games like Dungeons and Dragons and various others based on H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu mythos are still played, despite being overtaken by video and computer games. And Judge Dredd and 2000 AD and its other characters, like Slaine and the A.B.C. Warriors have survived into the 21st Century. Unfortunately, so have the Conservatives, Neoliberal economics, a political cult based around Reagan and Thatcher as visionary politicians, for whom it is tantamount to horrible blasphemy to criticise. And Obama and the Conservatives in this country also seem to want to pitch the world into another nuclear confrontation with Russia, this time over the Middle East.

Perhaps it’s time for a few more politically orientated satirical strips. Maybe one in which you play David Cameron, and have to avoid destroying the economy, making millions homeless and starving, and trying not to break up the UK while fighting the EU. All the while breaking trade unions, protecting the rich and powerful, and keeping the population as poor and desperate as possible. With the option of doing it all again as Theresa May.

E-Petition, Meetings and Demos against Hackney Council’s Criminalisation of Rough Sleepers

June 4, 2015

I got this request to sign a petition on Change.org yesterday from Zahira Patel in Bromley. She writes to protest against the new police powers Hackney Council is proposing to give to their police so that they can fine and prosecute rough sleepers in the borough. She states

Hackney Council’s new “Public Space Protection Orders” will give police and council officers the power to ban “anti-social” activities such as sleeping rough or begging. Those who breach an order could be issued with a £100 fixed penalty notice or a fine of £1,000.

As homeless charities have pointed out, this will criminalise the homeless who are already vulnerable. It is absurd to impose a fine of £1,000 on somebody who is already homeless and struggling. People should not be punished for the “crime” of not having a roof over their head – there is nothing inherently “anti social” or criminal about rough sleeping. Criminalising rough sleeping privileges the appearance of Hackney and the convenience of customers over the damage caused to the vulnerable and homeless.

Note that Kay Zell Huxley, a duty manager at a pub in the area was reported to have admitted that the “vagrants hanging around” do “respect the businesses and the pubs and are generally well behaved.” It is completely unjustifiable to criminalise these people simply because they “may be intimidating for people outside.” We should not privilege the convenience and desire of customers to have a good night out without having to see any homeless people over the lives and rights of those who are homeless and vulnerable.

We already know that homeless people are amongst the most vulnerable in our society and are already victims of exceptionally high levels of violence, crime and victimisation which is often committed by the general public and largely goes unreported. Researchers at the London School of Economics confirmed this in a study commissioned by Crisis as far back as 2004 and the rate of homelessness has only increased since then. We should not allow measures which will make the lives of those with nowhere else to go even harder than they already are.

We have seen public pressure stop similar measures when they were proposed by Oxford City Council. Let’s make sure we also stop this in Hackney and everywhere else it is proposed – we must force councils and policy makers to deal with the lack of affordable housing and rising levels of homelessness in London as a whole, rather than allow them to get away with shifting the “problem” into another borough.

Please take a moment to sign this petition. Let’s make sure that Hackney Council doesn’t make rough sleeping harder than it already is!

The petition can be found at https://www.change.org/p/hackney-council-stop-criminalising-hackney-s-rough-sleepers?utm_source=action_alert&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=320853&alert_id=ZxcmqaXGXS_By7w7G1xVoDY42RgG6ngIOusxjs8nXPXPHSTeSF%2By1s%3D

Tonight I got this update, reporting that they were holding a public meeting against these laws and were planning demonstrations for the 22nd of this month. It’s again from the organiser, Zahira Patel. She writes

Everyone has done an incredible job of spreading this petition. We now have over 70,000 signatures and there is lots of activity being planned!

If you are free and near Hackney tonight, you may want to attend a public meeting to plan a direct action in response to the Council’s PSPOs. It will be held tonight at 7pm, Halkevi Centre, Dalston Lane.

Hackney Renters are also organising a demonstration on Monday 22nd June, 6PM, outside Hackney Town Hall, Mare Street, E8 1EA London, United Kingdom.
Please see the events page here- https://www.facebook.com/events/1403275666667416/ and attend if you can!
You can follow Hackney Renters on Twitter by following @Hackney_renters for further updates about this.

There has also been a lot of media attention on this, with stories being featured by The Independent, The Guardian, The Huffington Post and others. Singer Ellie Goulding has also criticised the Council’s PSPOs which will hopefully raise even more public attention.

Here are a few of the articles which have been published:
http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/thousands-sign-petition-calling-on-london-borough-of-hackney-to-stop-criminalising-homeless-people-10295269.html
http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2015/06/04/hackney-homeless-to-be-fined-london_n_7508716.html
http://www.theguardian.com/music/2015/jun/04/ellie-goulding-challenges-british-councils-treatment-homeless-hackney-pspo
http://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2015/jun/03/councils-help-rough-sleepers-not-fine-them-hackney

You can follow me on Twitter using @ZahiraPatel if you would like to be kept updated on further media stories on the PSPO.

I will be in touch soon over the next few weeks about how we can deliver this petition or arrange a meeting with the Council if possible. So far we have done an incredible job of building public awareness of this issue – now let’s use our collective 70,000-strong voice to persuade Hackney Council to remove rough sleeping from its PSPOs! Please keep writing to, tweeting or contacting the Council and urge them to follow Oxford City Council’s decision to leave out rough sleeping from its PSPO.

Thank you once again for all your help and I hope many of you will be able to attend the demonstration.

This is chilling, and is definitely one for Johnny Void, who is particularly interested in homelessness and the authorities’ policy of social cleansing – forcing the poor and working class out of London, in order to make it nice and attractive for the middle class and super-rich.

It also shows how reactionary the Tories are. Under Thatcher, they were determined to drag us back, kicking and screaming, into the golden age of cut-throat capitalism, the 19th century. Now they’re trying to drag us even further back to the Sixteenth Century. This was a time when the nascent industrial economy first suffered a serious recession. Thousands lost their jobs and their homes, and were forced to take to the road to look for work. This frightened the authorities, who saw ‘masterless men’ – those without a craft employer or manorial lord, as a threat to public order. Local authorities also did not wish to see their areas burdened with supporting the poor from outside. They reacted by passing a series of legislation providing for vagrants to whipped and sent on their way. The laws against vagrancy in Halifax and Hull were so severe, that they became immortalised in a ‘beggar’s prayer’

‘From Hell, Hull and Halifax, good Lord deliver us.’

This is the modern version of that legislation. They can’t whip the poor souls, so they’re reduced to fining them instead. Which is particularly ridiculous, considering that if they had any money, they wouldn’t be on the streets in the first place.

I can, however, see this situation changing. A couple of decades ago you could hear the more extreme Tories talk approvingly about the birch in the Isle of Man. The island still retained this medieval corporal punishment, in which criminals were caned by the local police. There’s still nostalgia amongst some of the older generation for caning in schools, despite the horror stories you can hear from some of them about the abuse and violence meted out by sadistic teachers. Amongst tales of caning, my father told me how one of the teachers at his old school once threw one poor child out the window when he couldn’t answer a question.

I’ve got a feeling that some of the pressure against caning, and the birch, comes from international human rights legislation. This will go if the Tories succeed in getting rid of it. Then they’ll be nothing – or at least, very little – preventing the Tories from reintroducing the cane and the birch. And they can exercise their full, atavistic hatred of the poorest in society by having them flogged for daring to appear in public.

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.

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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).