Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation: The New Scottish Underground (Part One of Two)

Posted by on January 25th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

Auld Acquaintance: A Brief History of Comics in Scotland

When we speak of British comics, we are really talking about Scottish comics.  Although Englishmen like Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman are the nation’s biggest export, the industry that gave birth to them began in the northern archipelago and is now spawning a new radical underground of young cartoonists.

British comics began to gather momentum in the ’30s when D.C. Thompson (a Scottish company, based in Dundee) published the children’s publications The Dandy and The Beano, comics that played a formative role in the lives of most British youngsters and influenced the humor of countless creators (both within comics and out-with it).  Thompson also gave us Dudley Watkins’ Oor Wullie and The Broons, two newspaper strips that brought the humor closer to home with working-class characters, kitchen sink drama and an almost prohibitive use of the Dundonian dialect.  Nevertheless, they were a runaway success, striking a chord especially with those whose lives the characters reflected.

Oor Wullie by Dudley Watkins

Thompson became a beacon for creators as their publications expanded to include war comics like Commando and Victor, alongside girls’ titles such as Jackie and The Bunty — capes and tights were curiously absent, the shadow of Calvinism making any such fantasies verboten in the Scots psyche.  It was in these offices that three young upstarts — Alan Grant, John Wagner and Pat Mills — first met.  Frustrated with being relegated to the horoscope section and juvenile romances, they forged a creative partnership that would eventually lead to the creation of the seminal comic magazine 2000 A.D. in the late ’70s.

2000 became the next step in comics for most kids when they outgrew the Thompson titles.  With the radical mentality that Grant, Wagner and Mills brought to it, so came the sophomoric rebellion of teenagers — the authority figures of The Beano with their canes and Demon Whackers became the fascist satire of Judge Dredd — but now with a strong political vein, as the Thatcher government became a source of antagonism for the still working-class creators.  With its blend of sci-fi, dark humor and anti-authoritarian morality, the weekly anthology set a new standard for U.K. comics and attracted some of the brightest talents to its pages.  2000 A.D. would go on to launch the careers of the aforementioned Messrs. Gaiman and Moore as well as Kevin O’Neill, Dave Gibbons, Bryan Talbot, Brian Bolland and just about everyone in comics with a British passport.

Red Road Rage: The ’80s Counter Culture

The influence of 2000 A.D. sent shockwaves out through the country.  All of a sudden, there was an opportunity for creators to produce mature, intelligent comics without pandering to children, and its grassroots ethic led to many new publications emerging from Scotland in the ’70s and ’80s.  Notable among these were Near Myths, where a plucky young Grant Morrison began to plant the seeds of his Invisibles series; and Electric Soup, a no-holds-barred humor publication in the vein of the tabloid-baiting Viz.  While Viz used thinly veiled vulgar parodies of Beano and Dandy characters, Electric Soup capitalized on the new wave of Scots comedy that dominated television — an angered, bitter humor that defiantly cried out as industry collapsed and recession hit hard — from the sketch comedy of Naked Video and Absolutely to the vitriolic stand-up of Jerry Sadowitz and Bing Hitler (better known to American audiences as Craig Ferguson).  Over its three-year run, Electric Soup not only introduced the world to Frank Quitely, but sparked the growth of underground comix in Scotland.  With a more prominent emergence of head shops, American titles like the Freak Brothers and Zap were not an uncommon sight in these places and Electric Soup fit right in alongside them.  Behind the clouds of smoke, its humor was typically Glaswegian, with a dark pessimism that rang as true in the council estates as it did in student hovels.

Electric Soup issue 16

Despite its untimely demise, the Soup’s legacy lived on in the comix that followed, such as Metaphrog’s Strange Weather Lately, which reads like Archie Hind writing Love and Rockets, and the stoner anthology Northern Lightz.  The latter was curated by Jamie Grant and Alan Grant (no relation, by the way) and trod much the same territory as you’d expect: spliffs in every scene, fruit-salad coloring, crass parodies like “Red Ganja,” “Tales of the Buddha” and a regular dose of sticking it to The Man, many of these coming from Alan Grant and not exactly up to the standards of his other work.  Where it failed in content and direction, though, Northern Lightz did manage to attract a slew of new and obscure work, like the burlesque fantasies of Curt Sibling, and John Miller’s paranoid weirdness: it hinted at something special that was about to emerge.

Captain Zappa, written and drawn by John Miller

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One Response to “Such a Parcel of Rogues in a Nation: The New Scottish Underground (Part One of Two)”

  1. [...] here for part 1 and here for part 2 of the [...]