New British Comics #2

Posted by on March 9th, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Karol Wi?niewski (ed.); Polygo Books; 84 pp., B&W, £4

Cover art by Nelson Evergreen

Union flags, bowler hats, cups of tea and rigid pinkies. Anyone looking at Nelson Evergreen’s cover to this anthology would be forgiven for thinking it’s about as newly British as that popular beat combo The Beatles. It’s a stereotypical view of the country that populates tacky souvenir postcards and winsome nostalgia, all set to a rousing chorus of “Jerusalem”. However a quick glance at the list of contributors reveals a very different — certainly more modern — picture of Britain, one likely to send bulldog-faced nationalists into fits of forelock-tugging rage.

Names like Pawe? Gierczak and Jacek Zabawa speak to the recent influx of Polish immigrants to the British Isles following their joining of the European Union in 2004.  Editor Wi?niewski (himself a Pole) has tapped into that multicultural vein to bring about an anthology that represents the diversifying British identity and the growing influence of mainland Europe.

Words and pictures by Dan White

For comics, this impact is significant — on both sides.  The view of comics in the UK has always been less enlightened than that of, say, their French neighbors, never being accepted as art until very recently.  The few titles that did gain prominence were predominantly either juvenile endeavors or family-friendly newspaper strips.  The resultant voice was very homogenous; polarized between working-class slices of life and middle-class imperialist guilt. In Poland, comics had an ever more troubled development in the mid-20th century with the powerful Catholic church and Communist government (who evidently skipped the bit about the “opiate of the masses”) forbidding many influences that were seen as corrupting (especially those of the West).  The very word “comics” was even stricken from use.  But, like Britain, it has seen rapid rise in comics’ popularity over the last 20 years, albeit with a wider perspective and more influence from bande-dessinée.

These colliding traditions have resulted in New British Comics feeling less like another Viz or 2000 A.D. and more like an international anthology with a wide mix of artistic styles and divergent themes. As a window on a nation, it shows the modern melting pot that Britain has become. Perhaps it’s the mix of influences, or perhaps just the current mentality in the country, but there is less whimsy on display here and — with the Polish creators especially — a real pervading bleakness. Gierczak’s “Cyberpunk” strip is a prime example: Rendered in a style that’s somewhere between Georgian scratchboard and abstract-expressionism it shows the lone survivor of a space crash exploring a desolate planet. With little narration and a minimal scope for the story, it relies on the power of the art to convey a singular sense of loneliness, with stark empty spaces and insidiously animated shadows. It becomes a touching allegory of the immigrant experience as the survivor comes to terms with his new surroundings – finding them both hostile and ultimately crippling. The struggle against hostile surroundings is also an undercurrent in Dan White’s “Last Summer”, which takes places in that limnal space between town and country.  With art reminiscent of Jeff Lemire’s bucolic sketchiness, it creates something of a chilling tale of the death of social responsibilities and the savage nature of childhood.

Art by Pawe? Gierczak

Even the dour Scots make their presence felt, gelling more easily with this downtrodden side of the British psyche.  Rob Miller’s autobiographical stand-in, Elexender Browne, shows up in “The Last Drop”, a downtrodden rumination on the state of the nation.  Hovering around the titular pub (a real-life location, formerly the site of a gallows), Miller’s poetic narration seems to read the thoughts of the booze-soaked patrons, accumulating depression and apathy as it goes.  It’s a poignant thematic core for the collection, mingling real-life voices with the artistic concerns.  The smaller canvas of NBC’s pages suits Miller’s style well with his sparse rendering feeling much more cohesive on a reduced scale.

Words and pictures by Rob Miller

Another bold move that New British Comics makes is to produce a Polish language edition in tandem with the English release. Not only does this widen the market, but makes a move toward legitimizing the presence of other languages as a vital part of Britain’s identity.  It also has some aesthetic side-effects, like rendering Collins and Laurie’s surrealist “Roachwell” strips even creepier.  It’s an effect the pair certainly encourage, having experimented with the Gaelic language in their strip before.

Words by Craig Collins (tr. Karol Wi?niewski), art by Iain Laurie

Despite this very strong political message that is carried through the anthology, there were a couple of odd editorial decisions that muddy the effect somewhat. “Under the Rainbow” is not only drawn by a South African, but is also set in Johannesburg, pushing the extent to which we can call it a “British” comic to the limit, even though it is a beautifully drawn strip. Works, too, like Tony Hitchman’s “Explorers” are also too slight to carry either a message, or even a showcase of the cartoonist’s talents.

Nevertheless, the work on display here is an intriguing look at the British cultural barometer, with a strong sense of the direction that new and emerging artists are taking.  The current view of the country is less-than complimentary, but in the confluence of multi-cultural traditions, there is burgeoning hope here for a more united future.

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