British Comics: A Cultural History

By Purdue, Aw | Times Higher Education, January 19, 2012 | Go to article overview

British Comics: A Cultural History


Purdue, Aw, Times Higher Education


British Comics: A Cultural History. By James Chapman. Reaktion Books, 304pp, Pounds 25.00. ISBN 9781861898555. Published 21 November 2011

Most of us with fond memories of what we read as children or young adolescents will feel some trepidation as the comic becomes the object of academic study, and be aghast at the prospect of Korky the Cat or Desperate Dan being subjected to semiotic or linguistic analysis. Thankfully, this is not James Chapman's approach, for this authority on popular culture admires his subject. His book leaves us able to enjoy our Rupert the Bear Annual or back copies of Jackie, and he is interested "not so much in the evaluation of comics as an art form, but rather to understand what comics can tell us about society".

What, exactly, is a comic? The word suggests that a comic is funny or humorous, and many will think immediately of The Beano or The Dandy, but Chapman's wide umbrella covers adventure comics, those devoted to warfare, the horror comics that caused a moral panic in the 1950s, and the satirical Viz. The "comic strip" is a sequential cartoon with words, but Chapman includes long-running "comics" such as Adventure and Wizard that for much of their existence consisted of long prose stories. The archetypal comic is meant for children, but the first comics in the UK were meant to provide leisure reading for adults, while some of the most famous strips have had their home in daily newspapers, as with the Daily Mirror's Jane, who progressively shed her clothes in aid of popular morale during the Second World War. Chapman discusses this wide range of popular reading with encyclopaedic knowledge, and demonstrates how the prose story gradually gave way to the comic strip, how the provision of light and ephemeral reading became a major industry during the inter-war period, and how the character of comics changed along with social mores.

Much of the early academic work on popular culture saw it as an agent of social control, inculcating attitudes and beliefs calculated to help preserve the status quo, but most comics simply asserted the "common sense" of their time in their support for traditional gender roles, patriotism and the Empire. …

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