What happened to comics for kids? Hell, what happened to COMICS?
It's time to go back to basics
In central London, there’s a giant-sized superheroes, space ’n’ science fiction shop. Among the pricey objects on offer – £479.99 for a replica Alien egg, for example, or £152.99 for a Star Wars dart board – there are action figures, t-shirts, books, DVDs and - even now - comics. On packed shelves of glossy colour mags, we have zombies, saucy vampires, tough guy violence, titillation and bad language alongside the incredible, world-shattering powers of costume’d hyperbeings.
Cool, a 12-year-old would think. But look around, of course, and the customers are exclusively adult.
A sense of standardisation seems to prevail, here. The comics have serious, over-dramatic and elaborate plotlines involving characters acting realistically, however fanciful the scenario. Artwork tends to cuteness or realism - incredibly wide manic grins signify psychotics, and for being really on-edge, try cig-smoking.
But how come everyone thinks that being self-consciously 'adult' makes this stuff better, when in fact it's better when it's aimed at kids, and the fully-grown enjoy it more that way too?
There’s one part of this shop that always satisfies: the British comic section, with its racks full of 2000 AD comics and beautifully bound books of reprints of the late 1970s and early 1980s classic British war comic Battle. Here are brisk, no-fat action stories with abundant imagination, wit and individuality. There's 2000 AD's Judge Dredd and Nemesis The Warlock; and Charley’s War from Battle. There are also the quality second-billers - the time-travelling cowboys of Flesh, the blue-skinned elite infantryman Rogue Trooper and the JG Ballard-for-beginners Tharg's Future Shocks stories… Truly, this is sustenance for the weary soul. The 2000 AD comics, created for ten-year-olds and, later, teenagers, now has many, many more adult fans.
But could such comics be made now? Unlikely.
The entertainment is too raw, the action too violent, the humour too warped. Judge Dredd – whose film version back in September nailed the essence of the character superbly – had all these basic virtues in abundance in the early years of the 2000 AD strip. It had top-notch writers Pat Mills and John Wagner and artists including the mighty Mick McMahon, Brian Bolland and Ron Smith. These were stories were riven with satire as well as action – as well as JD’s full-on instant-justice shtick unleashed upon Mega City One’s hyper-obese insurrectionist fatties and ill-fated confectioner Uncle Ump’s sweets-as-crack. Consider the legendary, un-reprintable 1978 issues, when Dredd finds himself in the midst of a war between Ronald McDonald and Burger King in the post-nuclear Cursed Earth.
What about the other famous 2000 AD strip, Nemesis The Warlock, the horned alien freedom fighter waging war on the crusading, future-medieval xenophobes of Termight, led by their superfascist Grand Master Torquemada - later proved to be an actual reincarnation of the original leader of the Spanish Inquisition? Drawn to flesh- and brain-crawlingly wondrous effect by the great Kevin O’Neill, and scripted by Mills, here was rich mulch for developing brains. Ideas like these seep into the mind’s water table when you’re young.
Something else that probably wouldn’t last five minutes today is Battle’s historically accurate and brutally frank First World War strip Charley’s War. Also scripted by Mills, and awe-inspiringly illustrated by the late Joe Colquhoun, it’s another classic that anyone who watches X-Factor should be forced to read.
Tracing the experiences of the teenage British soldier Charley Bourne as he survives through the Great War, it combines adventure with seriousness in ways are genuinely affecting, as when Charley’s pal Ginger is blown up by a shell and he has to bury him. Has ever a villain been more genuinely hated than the sadistic toff Captain D’Arcy Snell for what he does to the heroic commoner Charley? These are how honourably subversive these black-and-white, five-pages-a-week series were - a wider discussion of the deadening consequence of the internet’s endless choice is going to have to wait. Go to the Imperial War Museum’s database of First World War servicemen, and there was actually a real Charley Bourne; comparing it to comics about sexy vampires or zombie attacks seems wrong, somehow.
Too cool for colour
Keep on going around the 2000 AD shelves and there’s more proof of the wisdom of the Old Ways, with collections of the still-synapse-sparking visions of Jack Kirby, Jim Steranko and Steve Ditko from the 1960s.
© Marvel Comics
The latter’s run on Nick Fury Agent Of S.H.I.E.L.D was particularly great. Influenced by fine art and pop culture as much as Jack Kirby, these sumptuously drawn, action-packed espionage-psychodramas worked extraordinarily well in black-and-white, to the point that seeing them in colour, after being so used to the British reprints, seemed incorrect. The same can be said for any art by the shadowed minimalist Gene Colan, whose haunting work on Daredevil, Doctor Strange and The Tomb Of Dracula always looked better freed from the tyranny of four colours.
True, old editions of Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four or Nick Fury are largely uncomplicated knockabout, escapist fun that come crashing dynamically in through the window, rather than tousling their hair while having a difficult phone call, but isn’t this largely the point?
Maybe the source of the distemper is only another bookshelf away, with the hardbacks of the Alan Moore-scripted 1980s mindspasmers Watchmen and V For Vendetta - not forgetting the original work he was doing at the same time on the Swamp Thing and Marvelman for Warrior magazine. Moore is one of the great creative minds of comics, a genuine one-off, and these comics can be read repeatedly and never become stale. But did his revolutionary work make the simple business of a good story, illustrated well, seem unworthy?
Oldsters came in and ruined the fun
In the decades that followed, the market splintered and increasingly catered to 'mature' audiences. Which brings us to the new comics rack, and its zombies, gratuitous complexity and dutiful 'I’ve-got-a-tattoo' edginess. What is to be done?
To use a musical analogy, we need something like the garage rock revival or the rediscovery of how potent old blues can be. Think punk reacting against chart pop and prog, or the ‘Back To Mono’ badges Phil Spector and John Lennon used to wear. We want comics that prize directness instead of over-sophistication, getting the transporting essence across by the most economical means possible – Bo Diddley versus Yes, if you will.
Of course, not that griping about a minority interest from the pre-digital age really matters that much. For the interested party, there are acres of vintage comics yet to be mined, and being a parent with young kids certainly helps when getting reacquainted with Davy Law’s anarchic Dennis The Menace strips; the genius of Leo Baxendale and Dudley D Watkins' work on The Broons and Oor Wullie; the sublime freakishness of American cartoonist Basil Wolverton; and more sequential non-conformists doing their own thing. It’s also good to know that David Lloyd, the artistic talent behind V For Vendetta, launched the old-style but online British comic Aces Weekly in September.
There’s one, even better, last thing to reflect on: Spider-Man co-creator Steve Ditko, now 86, is still doing new work through an independent publisher. Still recognisably himself, but freed from any formulas imposed from above, his newest comics are hand-drawn in black-and-white, and they’re on actual paper. Stitch that, fallacious modernity. ®
The illustrations shown this article are under copyright. They are being used strictly to identify the comics being discussed and reviewed and cannot be used for commercial purposes without permission from the copyright-holders.