Posts Tagged ‘Horror Comics’

Tharg’s Tribute to Kevin O’Neill: When the Comics Code Banned His Art

December 30, 2017

Yesterday in one of the posts I mentioned the dictatorial grip the Comics Code Authority had over American comics from the 1950s to the mid-1980s. The Code was sent up to reassure and protect the American public after the moral panic over Horror comics in the 1950s. This spread to comics as a whole, which were seen as subversive, morally corrupting and un-American. This included bizarre accusations of Fascism and deviant sexuality aimed at those stalwarts of popular American culture, Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman. The scare decimated the American comics industry, and nearly caused its total collapse.

The Code was set up to ensure that all comics were suitable for a child of seven to read. Its officials were unelected, and in many cases had right-wing views that showed absolutely no understanding of popular politics or culture. It was supposed to be a voluntary organisation, and there were comics creators who worked outside and often against the code. Like Robert Crumb and the underground scene, or the independents Like Dave Sim and Cerebus the Aardvark. In practice, however, those comics were well outside the mainstream, and were only available in head shops and specialist comics stores like Forbidden Planet and the late, lamented Forever People in Bristol.

I discussed how the Code rejected one issue of the Green Lantern Corps, written by Alan Moore and drawn by Kevin O’Neill, on the grounds that O’Neill’s artwork was too grotesque and disturbing for children. This was ironic, as he had been delighting children and adults with his monstrous aliens, mutants, robots and equally grotesque humans for years in the pages of 2000 AD. He was and remains one of comicdom’s favourite artists, and while the other artists who worked on the Nemesis the Warlock strip added the considerable talents to the tale of the Warlock and his foe, the human ‘Ultimate Fascist’ Grand Master Torquemada, I think much of the strip’s initial popularity came from his superb, bizarre artwork.

2000 AD duly paid tribute to him and his censorship by the Comics Code in their anniversary issue, Prog 500, published on 14 December 1986. In it, Tharg took a walk through the contents of his mind, reviewing the comic’s history and revisiting some of the characters that didn’t work. At the end he comes to Kevin O’Neill, who appears as a stunted, crazed sadist. O’Neill admonishes him for censoring the most extreme piece of violence in the strip. Tharg tries to reassure him by reminding him that he won the ‘ultimate accolade’ for which other comics creators all envy him: the day the Comics Code banned his art as totally unsuitable for children. To which O’Neill replies ‘Hmmph. You won’t get around me by flattery’. Unsatisfied, O’Neill then calls down Torquemade, who promptly beats Tharg up.

The different sections of that strip were written and drawn by the different artists and writers, who worked on the comic, so there were different credit cards for them for each section. That section ends with the credits reading ‘Script Therapy: Pat Mills. Art Therapy: Kev O’Neill. Letters: Steve Potter’. Which suggests that the letterer was the only sane one there.

Here’s a few panels.

The real O’Neill is, however, quite different from his portrayal in the strip. It’s been pointed out several times that the fans, who’ve met him, are often surprised that he doesn’t dress in black and silver like the Terminators. And the other rumours about him are also totally untrue. Like he only works at night using a quill pen in the light of candles, and has an occult temple in his basement. I met him at UKCAC 90 in Reading, where I queued with Mike to have him draw a character on the blank badges we’d been given for our fave artists to draw on. O’Neill at the time was a wearing a ‘Solidarity for Nicaragua’ T-shirt, which a left-wing friend of mine at college also wore. He also was wearing a brown leather jacket, and his facial features at the time reminded me a bit of John Hurt. He was affable, enthusiastic, full of nervous energy and completely unthreatening. If you seem him now at comic conventions or footage of them on YouTube, or the occasional interview for television, he’s obviously older and balder, as effects so many of us eventually. He comes across as genial and entertaining British gent, completely unlike the berserk monstrosities that rampage across his strips down the years. Even when he’s telling the stories about how he and Pat Mills went as far as they could in savaging American superhero comics and right-wing, superpatriotic American politics in the violent and nihilistic Marshal Law. Actors, writers and artists aren’t their creations. Fortunately.

Advertisements

Vox Political: Arts Just for the Toffs?

January 24, 2015

Mike over at Vox Political has a thought-provoking article on anti-working class bias in the arts. It follows James Blunt’s attack this week on Chris Bryant MP, in which Blunt accused the politicians of ‘classism’ and bias towards those from a privileged background. The article begins:

How many of you were on James Blunt’s side in his very public spat with Chris Bryant MP?
And now that Julie Walters has weighed in, saying Mr Bryant was right? What do you think now?

The Labour MP had claimed British culture was dominated by stars like Blunt and Eddie Redmayne, who benefited from a privileged background. Blunt took offence and they had a highly-publicised row about it.

But top actress Julie Walters agrees. Quoted in The Guardian‘s Weekend magazine, she said: “People like me wouldn’t have been able to go to college today. I could because I got a full grant. I don’t know how you get into it now. Kids write to me all the time and I think: I don’t know what to tell you.”

As Mike’s articles says, the actress and comedian is worried that the education and training required to get into drama is now too expensive for people from working class backgrounds.

Also in agreement is the great British comics creator, Pat Mills. Among the many comic strips produced by Mills and the other writers and artists with whom he worked, was ‘Charley’s War’, which ran in the war comic Battle. The hero was working class, British tommy thrown into the chaos and horror of the First World War. Unlike many other war strips, which showed plucky British heroes sticking it to the Hun, and returning home with nary a scratch on them in time for tea, ‘Charley’s War’ was grimly realistic. It was a profoundly anti-war strip, and has rightly been hailed as the best British comic strip. Mills states that the strip, however, is still resented by some because its hero was working-class, its creators came from working class backgrounds, and were strongly anti-establishment. He raises the question of whether such as strip would be possible today.

Barker Book

Mills and the 1970’s Comics Revolution

Mills has been working in comics since the 1970s. The comics he wrote for and helped create include Battle, Action, and 2000 AD. His wife is also comics artist, and he himself wrote for the girl’s comics. Many of Battle’s strips, apart from ‘Charley’s War’, gave unflinching portrayals of war and its horrors, such as that other Battle favourite, Darkie’s Mob. Action was banned following concerns about its violence. While most of the strips were largely based on the film and TV of the day, like Jaws (‘Hookjaw’), Dirty Harry (‘One-Eye Jack’) and so on, it also ran ‘Kids Rule UK’, about a violently dystopian future, in which law and order had broken down and society was dominated by violent teenage gangs. Mills and the other reprobates from the comics rumpus-room had intended it to reflect the youth culture of the times. It was originally going to be called ‘Boots’, after the footwear produced by Dr Martens, beloved of teenage tearaways and skinhead bovver boys. To stress how contemporary it was, the title was to include the year. So you’d have ‘Boots ’77’, which next year would change to ‘Boots ’78’. Action and its violence were too much for the authorities, and the strip effectively banned. Mills and co decided that from now on, all the violence should be in the interests of law and order. And as a response, they created the Fascist cop, Judge Dredd, who has been laying down in the law in Megacity 1 against perps, muties, Sovs, evil dictators and the undead Dark Judges ever since.

He helped spark a comics revolution. Martin Barker in his book, Comics, Ideology, Power and the Critics points to the way comics like Action and Battle transformed British comics. They introduced greater realism and psychological complexity, even ambiguity. Barker’s book is about how working class literature, from the cheap novels produced for ‘the democracy’ in the Victorian period, through the penny dreadfuls to today’s children’s comics, have always been intensely controversial. Amongst the most notorious were the horror comics, which were held to be corrupting Britain’s youth, and girls’ comics. These have been attacked by both feminists and non-feminists. Feminists have accused them of inculcating into girls traditional values, and sacrificing female friendship and solidarity and putting men first. Non-feminists have attacked them for encouraging girls to abandon traditional female occupations, like sewing and knitting. Barker showed that neither side was right. Given the pressure from both sides of the gender issue, I wonder if the creators of the comics ever felt like giving up. It certainly seemed that whatever they did, it would be wrong. I’m not actually surprised that in the end girls’ comics collapsed, and were replaced by the equally controversial girl’s magazines.

Dan Dare and the British Class System

If you want to see how much of a revolution in class terms ‘Charley’s War’ represented, think back to that great British comic strip, Dan Dare. ‘Dare’ is rightly regarded as a classic, not least because of the superb artwork. It was created by the Rev. Marcus Morris as a wholesome antidote to the American horror comics, and Dare is in many ways the quintessential British hero. He can be seen as an RAF air ace, projected into a future world of rockets and alien worlds. And like British society of the time, there is a very definite class bias. Dare himself is upper class, while his sidekick, Digby, is very much a working class character. While I respect Frank Hampson’s strip, there is very much a danger that the class system which permeated it will come back to inform other strips.

Julie Walters, Chumley-Warner and Upper Class Portrayal of the Proles

Julie Walters also makes the point that if the trend continues, it will result in middle and upper middle class people attempting to portray the working class, just like it used to be. My mother has a story of just how patronising and inflexible this was, and how intolerant BBC bosses were when told that their idea of how the lower orders behaved were when it was contradicted.

My mother grew up on one of Bristol’s council estates. One of her neighbours had a relative, who was an actress. She auditioned for a role as a working class lass with the Beeb. At the audition, she was told that as she was working class, she would be drinking tea out of a saucer. She tried to put the producer right, by telling him that working class people didn’t actually do that. No, said the man from the Beeb, working class people really did drink their tea from the saucer. The girl could not convince him otherwise, and didn’t get the job. I’ve also heard from Mum that she didn’t get acting work again after it, though I hope this is untrue. Harry Enfield’s character, Chumley-Warner, on the wireless-with-pictures, is a caricature. But the attitudes Enfield lampoons were very real.

And if we don’t watch out, they’re coming back.

Mike’s article is at http://voxpoliticalonline.com/2015/01/24/class-divide-in-the-arts-is-it-just-for-the-toffs/.

On the subject of James Blunt, Dead Ringers took the mick out of him years ago. This contained the lyric ‘And Morrissey is telling me James Blunt is rhyming slang’. Quite.

Here’s the sketch: