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. Chapman argues, however, that popular culture also plays a role in "constructing as well as maintaining social values" and that the British comic has played its part in stimulating social and cultural change. He points to the way that in the 1950s, comics such as The Rover and The Victor created a new type of war hero, often NCOs rather than officers and more at one with their readership of working-class boys, while Bunty, Boyfriend and Jackie chart the changing tastes and self-images of girls and young women in the late 1950s and 1960s.
It was only the enormously successful Eagle and Girl, edited by the Reverend Marcus Morris, that really set out to use comics to proselytise moral and social values, and their success was largely due to glossy production and the use of colour printing - and, in Eagle's case, to the strip featuring the intrepid space pilot Dan Dare, acclaimed by Chapman as "a distinctly British adventure hero". Rather than seeking to improve the young, The Beano and The Dandy have been characterised by a form of anarchic conservatism exemplified by Dennis the Menace and his dog Gnasher, both sadly now modified in the interests of political correctness. Nor have comic strips for adults tended to laud good behaviour and the work ethic. Chapman salutes the Victorian manifestation of the unrespectable working class, Ally Sloper, as a lovable rogue and a forerunner to the Daily Mirror's Andy Capp. Comics have always been ambivalent in their attitudes to authority, and public-school tales gained much of their popularity from the "fascination of a society without parental authority".
This is a book that reminds us of the fantasy worlds we have lived in, and analyses the appeal and structure of those worlds. Only those who enjoy popular culture can write about it well, and this is a book in which not only is a genre analysed with expertise but enthusiasm is recollected.
British Comics: A Cultural History
By James Chapman. Reaktion Books, 304pp, £25.00. ISBN 9781861898555. Published 21 November 2011