Books: Strange postcards from the phantom zone

Nick Hasted delves into the marginalised and mucky world of British comics
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
The brief moment in the late 1980s when the comic book seemed about to burst into the literary mainstream seems long ago now. A flurry of media interest, from the broadsheets to the style press, soon faded when the promised mass-market breakthrough of "adult" comics failed to materialise. Gollancz's graphic novel line was quietly closed down, Doris Lessing's brave, bad attempt at comics writing buried. But while the world looked elsewhere, writers and artists awakened to the possibilities of the medium have carried on. The last decade has seen the incremental, unremarked-upon chiselling out of the comic-book's potential, the assembly of major work. In their scale, sometimes thousands of pages long, and method of publication (serialised, in monthly instalments, 20-odd pages at a time, over five years, or 10), they resemble the novel's roomy 18th- century beginnings, when no rules had been set, no sort of reader assumed. The very best of them dwarf DeDillo's Underworld in ambition and achievement. And some of their most remarkable writers are British.

The comic has been home to its share of exceptional artwork since its inception a century ago. But it took a wild-bearded figure from Northampton, Alan Moore, to elevate its writing. Moore spent the 1970s soaking himself in the almost undifferentiated culture of his time: the linguistic relish of Ballard and Pynchon, the films of Roeg and Kubrick, the music of Bowie, the comics of Crumb. It was only with the publication late in the decade of the darkly humorous 2000 AD that Moore chose comics as the medium where his ability could have most impact. Drawing on the cut-ups of Bowie, Roeg and Michael Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius novels - recognising their appropriateness to an art-form divided into panels, where juxtapositions of time and space could be easily achieved - Moore and the comic reached their popular zenith with Watchmen, in 1986. A revisionist capstone to the superhero genre, its formal intricacy was obsessive. Coinciding with the success of Frank Miller's Batman epic The Dark Knight Returns, Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer-winning memoir of his father's Holocaust experience, Maus, and the coincidental entry into American comics of a number of other highly talented cartoonists, it's no wonder that interest in the field briefly blazed.

Moore's career struggled when that interest fell. But even as the media moved on, other British writers moved in. They shared characteristics which set them far apart from their contemporaries in literature. All were working- or lower-middle- class. Like Moore, all were insatiable autodidacts, not university-educated. Some had their imagination sparked by comics as children. But all had gone on to devour pop and high culture indiscriminately: the Beatles and Bataille, Sartre and superheroes. "I read and found everything," Moore's most prominent inheritor, Neil Gaiman, once told me. The Hampshire-born Gaiman was soon joined by Glasgow's Grant Morrison, Belfast's Garth Ennis and London's Peter Milligan.

All have created work of cultural relevance to contemporary Britain. None has much time for the Booker-winning elite. "Perhaps there's the sense, coming from a working-class background, that comics are more available than literature," Milligan suggests. Morrison was more assertive when I spoke to him in 1994: "The British novel has become so thin-blooded and out of touch with anything," he said. "And television drama's been pretty much emasculated. Comics is one place where no one's looking. And you get this work out, which would once have been some bizarre film by Lindsay Anderson, but now there'd be no possible way of getting that funded. Comics' marginalisation allows you to do a lot that you wouldn't be able to do otherwise."

Of this secret pantheon, Neil Gaiman was the first to gain notice. His youth was spent consciously constructing an intense private mythology from day-long trawls through London's second-hand bookshops and newsagents stocking American comics, artefacts so strange to a British boy that they seemed "postcards from the phantom zone". But, when the time came to write the comic that would make good on Moore's promise, it was the scale of Michael Moorcock's pulp English mythology, spread through dozens of paperbacks, that was his model. "We are all the children of Michael Moorcock and Angela Carter," he'd later claim. The Sandman was a story about stories told in 75 monthly, 24-page installments, published in America by DC. It was eventually collected in 10 books, giving permanence to his achievement. It was loudly admired by literary figures from Norman Mailer to Stephen King. In its unprecedented scale, and in bringing an end to his story at the height of its success at a company more used to milking Batman, Gaiman had created vital precedents. But, like Moore before him, he found his pre-eminence in comics waning. He quit the medium in 1996, intending to return when he'd been forgotten.

Gaiman's temporary retirement merely ushered in replacements more quickly. This month sees the publication of the latest collections of the comics which have filled DC's post-Sandman vacuum: The Invisibles: Counting to None and Preacher: War in the Sun. Both put Gaiman's scale and vision in the service of writers who could not be more different.

Grant Morrison's The Invisibles may be the best British comic this decade. Morrison - influenced equally by superhero comics and punk, The Prisoner and socially conscious playwrights like Peter Barnes and, once again, the sensual, apocalyptic world of Moorcock's Jerry Cornelius - writes comics about disobedience and imaginative anarchy. He's dared ridicule, as when he told me an early Invisibles episode, in which the spirit of John Lennon was conjured, was autobiographical. But this shouldn't distract from the innovative, incendiary nature of his writing.

The Invisibles centres on a group of would-be subversives in a secret war with forces of social control. But Morrison's most impressive achievement has been to exploit an apparent defect in comics: their serialised, commercial nature. The Invisibles' most challenging episodes came at the beginning, and lost it two-thirds of its initially large audience. Morrison was faced with the cancellation of his most deeply felt work, a horror no modern novelist has known. His reaction was to rewire his writing radically. The Invisibles Volume 2 (from which Counting to None is drawn) was, Morrison admitted, "the Hollywood version". Flick through it and you'll see boots kicking in doors, guns blasting - the appearance of an action movie. Flick a little further, and you'll see its heroes being detourned, the Situationist technique in which conformist comics characters were critiqued by their own word balloons. There's much talk in these pages of "corporate viral technology", the pre-packaging of language and dreams by mass media. Morrison has here undertaken the debugging of his own work. Rereading Volume 2 in its entirety, I felt deprogrammed myself, unwilling to listen to the radio, watch TV, or be distracted until, a day later, the dose wore off. The passionate letters page reveals similar reactions. Dripping into heads month by month, year after year, The Invisibles uses comics' part-work, pulp nature to enduring effect.

The contrast with Garth Ennis's Preacher at first seems enormous. Ennis was 19 when he began writing comics. His subject matter has ranged from everyday life in his native Belfast to American post-war foreign policy. But, as with Morrison, he has found one narrative capable of uniting his concerns. Preacher is essentially a modem Western, about the quest of three flawed characters to find and punish God, who has absconded from Heaven for the pleasures of the flesh. Ennis draws his values from John Wayne westerns, complicated by an awareness of how the real world would gnaw at such simple ideals, and a penchant for the blackest humour. Burning with a dislike for organised religion born in Belfast's conflict, and blessed with a mind without the normal barriers of taste and decency, Ennis has fashioned a moral epic which begins with a joke no family newspaper could repeat, and continues with extreme violence. True Grit meets The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

Ennis's particular skill is dialogue, which he's carefully honed. It's the rhythm of his words which lets him slip from scenes of raw romantic longing to a bloated Pope figure dropping out of the sky to squash a dribbling, inbred descendant of Christ, or to the fantasy life of Kurt Cobain-copying, would-be shotgun suicide Arseface (so named after inadequate post-blast surgery). No film could legally replicate its effects; no current novelist, I suspect, would want to. Only comics exist in such a happy median between pop product and art too obscure to be censored. Like Morrison, Ennis is re-routing common aspects of the culture around him into something deeply personal. "It touches on a base level," cult crime writer Joe R. Lansdale has noted. "There ain't two just like it."

There are other British voices, no less distinct. Take Peter Milligan. Hampered early on by the notion that as a working-class boy he could never be a writer, his life since has been a careful balance between keeping his roots and transcending them. His comics (including Skin, about a Thalidomide skinhead) test the limits of self. As impressive are the few major British cartoonists, the writer/artist discipline from which, until Moore, all comics' great talents came. Bryan Talbot's The Tale of One Bad Rat uses Beatrix Potter's word-and-picture combinations as the visual subtext to the story of a scared, abused girl's salvation. Nick Abadzis, meanwhile, explores comics' visual potential with his recurring character Hugo Tate, filling him in from a simple stick-man until, in the novel-length O, America, his face is lined by trauma, then washed by feeling and made tentatively human. Alan Moore himself, starved of financial support when he left comics' mainstream, has slowly carved one more work to confirm his vaunted reputation: From Hell, about Jack the Ripper. It seeks the nature of murder as an event, and the dark currents which flowed from the 1880s to the present; themes made solid by the Victorian weight and implacable rigour of his words and Eddie Campbell's art. Five-hundred pages eked out over 10 painstaking years, along with The Invisibles it may be the best British comic - one more addition to Britain's slowly growing, secret stock of major work. The final thing to understand about these creators is the place they're published: the American comics industry. On its fringes, you can find American cartoonists doing fine work, too. But, standing between them all and the mass acceptance some still dream of, is a different world: rapaciously exploitative corporations like Marvel, and DC (who publish most of the writers I've mentioned, but will always care more about Bruce Wayne). Marvel especially has ignored art to exploit aggressively every last cent from ageing superhero fans. Last year, the company declared bankruptcy. In the comic-book's home, it's barely a mass medium now. Some like it that way.

"We're a bit outlaw," Dark Knight Returns' Frank Miller told The Comics Journal this month. "There is something about the form itself, the intimate process of reading it, the act of drawing it, [that] lends itself towards extremes. It doesn't reassure." Perhaps he's right. Perhaps, as Grant Morrison would agree, the comic-book's best talents are so strange and strong just because of the medium's years beneath contempt, beyond repute. Perhaps that's why so many of the best British writers have stepped around literature's unwieldy, elitist structures to find fulfilment in the muck. That's no reason not to dig them out yourself.

Watchmen, One Bad Rat and all Preacher, Invisibles and Sandman titles are published by Titan.