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PCO Procartoonists – Comics Britannia REVIEWED

September 25, 2007 in General

PCO member Royston Robertson reviews the third episode of Comics Britannia, broadcast on BBC Four 24th September 2007.

THE final part of BBC Four’s Comics Britannia covered the period from the late 1970s when comics grew up. OK, maybe “grew up” is not the right phrase – especially as the programme opened with a look at Viz comic. Perhaps, “annoyed the grown-ups” is more appropriate, as this was when comics started to become grittier and more realistic, a world away from the Beano and the Dandy.


The documentary rightly asserted that although, on the face of it, Viz was just a downmarket rag packed with toilet humour and some creative swearing (Johnny Fartpants was looked at in some depth) its cultural significance cannot be underestimated. Comedian Frank Skinner argued that it was the first time that a type of humour experienced everyday in the schoolyard and in the pub broke into the mainstream.

This was made possible because Viz sprang not from the mainstream media but from the underground fanzine culture that sprang out of punk, and not from London but Newcastle. It was an authentic voice. Comedian Stewart Lee and others were called upon to read some of the Top Tips from the comic, laughter was mandatory. And with its non-PC characters such as Sid the Sexist and Millie Tant, Viz did not toe the line of the new politically correct comedy establishment. As Skinner commented, Viz “has a beautiful freedom about it”.

Deftly pulling together some seemingly very different threads the programme moved on to Action comic which was around in the same late 70s period. The IPC comic was a very different animal to Viz, being a “serious” comic aimed at boys, but it was breaking similar taboos. It featured antiheroes rather than square-jawed heroes, and some quite violent storylines. Strips such as Look Out For Lefty, which covered football hooliganism and was a kind of dark twin to Roy of the Rovers, provoked the fury of the tabloid press. Action was withdrawn by IPC and later closed down.

Pat Mills, the man behind Action and a key figure in British comics, pointed out that it was effectively relaunched under the cloak of science-fiction, as 2000AD. They found they could get away with violent and challenging stories that reflected contemporary Britain … if they were not set in contemporary Britain. Spanish artist Carlos Esquerra (who must have been a bit miffed to be given subtitles even though he was speaking English!) was on hand to draw Judge Dredd and talk about how his experience of growing up under Franco informed his depiction of the fascistic lawman.

From 2000AD we moved on to the career of one of its writers, and one of the most significant players in comics: Alan Moore. It’s always a joy to see Moore on the telly, especially so soon after he popped up in Jonathan Ross’s BBC Four documentary about reclusive Spider-Man artist Steve Ditko. We looked at Moore’s V for Vendetta, created with David Lloyd, the story of Britain under a fascist dictatorship and inspired by the dark days of early 80s Thatcherism. We learned that it was very deliberately aimed at adults, with Moore and Lloyd eschewing Biff! Bang! Pow! sound effects and thought bubbles, and introducing a depth never before seen in comics.

From this we moved on to the “British invasion” which saw UK comics writers and artists headhunted by the Americans. This led to the classic Watchmen, created by Moore and Dave Gibbons, which imagined what superheroes would be like in the real world (the answer: fascist nutcases). Moore’s reading of the Rorschach character was a joy, even if you had never imagined the creepy vigilante with a Northampton burr.

The final part of Comics Britannia was a good overview of comics’ latter history, though there were some omissions. Where, for example, was Moore and Eddie Campbell’s epic From Hell? But sometimes it’s good to be left wanting more, or indeed wanting Moore. Someone should give that man his own chatshow.

Bloghorn says thanks to the BBC for producing the series and also, to Royston for being the PCO’s first reviewer of cartoon culture. Click R for Robertson here.

PCO Procartoonists – Comics Britannia REVIEWED

September 18, 2007 in General

PCO member Royston Robertson reviews the second episode of Comics Britannia, broadcast on BBC Four 17th September 2007. You can read his first review here

THERE was a very different cast of characters for the second part of the Comics Britannia documentary, and not just on the page. Gone were the quiet, eccentric types such as Aardman’s Nick Park and poet Michael Rosen, who reminisced about The Beano and The Dandy last week, and in came journalist Max Hastings and comedian Frank Skinner to talk about real boys’ stuff … war and football!

Just like in the comics the girls in the audience were given something to keep them quiet too, so cartoonist Posy Simmonds and writer Stella Duffy were there to talk about the stories of ballet, boys and boarding school. A Mel Gibson was on hand to talk about the days of inky fingers – she’s a “comics historian”, apparently.

Again Comics Britannia took a no-nonsense, chronological approach to telling it’s story. It picked the launch of the Eagle in 1950 as a starting point. I was amazed to learn that Dan Dare – Pilot of the future, started out, like the Eagle’s creator Marcus Morris, as a man of the cloth. Not surprising really, as the comic was launched as a wholesome alternative to the imported American horror comics, such as Tales From the Crypt, that had been busy warping young minds at the time.

The programme was packed with such nuggets of trivia. Who knew that Jacqueline “Tracy Beaker” Wilson was once a DC Thomson employee and that her name inspired a new comic/magazine aimed at girls? Jackie, of course. Or that a young Gerald Scarfe won a drawing competition in the Eagle, with David Hockney as runner-up?

In fact, much of the documentary was a revelation to me because I spent my childhood immersed in humour comics, mainly The Beano, and didn’t bother much with sport and war comics. I was amazed to find that pop fops Spandau Ballet once played for Roy of the Rovers – though this explained the signing of Shakin’ Stevens in the Viz football spoof Billy the Fish (no doubt more on that in the final part of Comics Britannia next week).

Likewise, I wasn’t too familiar with war characters such as Captain Hurricane. He was described here memorably by Frank Skinner as “a sort of muscular Duke of Edinburgh figure … a racist term for every occasion”. It was interesting to hear that Charley’s War, a later war strip which dropped the gung-ho approach (no more “Eat lead, Fritz!” caricatures) and attempted to cover the horror and futility of conflict, had been influenced by the real emotions found in the stories of girls’ struggles featured in Bunty and Tammy.

Another enjoyable and shamelessly nostalgic romp through the comics, then, but with a hint of sadness. We’re told that 10 million comics a week were sold in 1973, but it’s made very clear: those days have gone.

Thanks to Royston, who’ll be finishing off his stint as the PCOs first reviewer with the concluding episode next week. Bloghorn says, click R for Robertson

PCO Procartoonists – Comics Britannia REVIEWED

September 11, 2007 in General


PCO member Royston Robertson reviews the first episode of Comics Britannia, broadcast on BBC Four 10th September 2007.

VARIOUS bigwigs at the Beeb have suggested recently that BBCs Three and Four could be axed, in a cost-cutting move. The former is fine by me – there’s only so many times you can watch Two Pints of Lager and a Packet of Crisps repeats – but on the evidence of Comics Britannia, we should get the placards out and start a “Save BBC Four” campaign right now.

The documentary was nothing groundbreaking, it was a straightforward, chronological, talking-heads history of British humour comics, but it was informative and intelligent and mercifully free of the kind of dumbed-down script and constant re-capping that afflict so many contemporary documentaries (see BBC Two’s British Film Forever series).

The first of a three-parter (the others are on boys and girls comics, and the grittier work that emerged in the 1970s and led to the graphic novel boom) it was a chronological potted history from the birth of The Dandy in 1937 to the present day. It began with a serious misstep that some commentators have already noted, the claim that “speech balloons were a key innovation” of The Dandy – in fact they’d been around for hundreds of years – but it soon redeemed itself as it took us on a nostalgic journey through the story of DC Thomson’s iconic Beano and later IPC rivals such as Whizzer and Chips.


Issues that arise out of a study of comics, such as the early racism, their role in brightening up a grim postwar Britain, and the debate over whether comics are “bad” for you, were discussed intelligently by the likes of Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell, poet Michael Rosen, Aardman animator Nick Park and a whole roster of cartoonists and writers from the glory days of comics.

What was particularly satisfying, from this cartoonist’s point of view, was that the documentary, narrated by comedian Armando Iannucci, stated that its mission was to uncover the artists behind the strip and give them due recognition. And it did just that. It was a joy to hear the names of Dudley Watkins, David Law and Ken Reid mentioned on TV and particularly great to see the genius that is Leo “Bash Street Kids” Baxendale being interviewed. It was also great to see artwork presented in all its glory, so close you could see the pencil marks.

I’m looking forward very much to parts two and three, as well as to the other shows in BBC Four’s comics season (see link below for details). In the meantime, I’ve got placards to write.

Here’s a link to the Beeb’s comics Britannia site and thanks for the review Royston. Bloghorn says check out R for Robertson here