The inauguration of President Obama this week has started me thinking about politics again.
I’ve said before that comics used to drip with the stuff – not just underground comics either, but mainstream stuff. From Batman and Spider-Man to 2000AD and even The Beano, there were all sorts to direct and indirect references to whatever was going on in the political scene. Sly satires, wry comments of approval or disapproval, even downright polemic. Nowadays? Almost nothing.
It’s not as though people today aren’t interested, not really. It might well be true that people aren’t all that inspired by party politics anymore*, but politics in its rawest and most genuine form is most definitely alive and well. Back in 2003 the “Stop the War coalition” managed to get nearly a million people** onto the streets of London, and of course other causes from the pro-hunting “Countryside Alliance” to “Gay Pride” regularly get massive numbers of people to go out and stand up for what they believe is right.
If that’s not politics, what the hell is?
On the big side of the Atlantic the path trodden by President Obama proves that politics is alive and well over there too. For the last heaven knows how long (it’s felt like years) Obama’s path to the White House has provoked discussions about race, religion, class, gender, healthcare, ethics and pretty much all points in between. Again, if all that isn’t politics, what is?
So where are the comics? Did I miss them? Where were the metaphors for the big national*** debates? At the height of the civil rights movement writers used the X-Men to look at the issue through the prism of Mutant persecution****. What comics in the last five years have examined race or religion in any meaningful way? What comics have examined the rise of the surveillance society, or the slow but steady erosion of civil liberties in the west?
I’m not saying they aren’t out there. I’m just saying that if they are out there, I haven’t seen them.
Is it simply that comics have ditched their radical roots and become simply a medium of entertainment? After all, this isn’t the twentieth century any more and while comics might once have been the most accessible visual medium to hand for your average student radical, these days it’s both quicker and easier to stick something up on Youtube, or stick a rant on your blog. Gone are the days when people were prepared to spend hours slaving over a hot photocopier just to make a point about the government, it seems.
Not that the contemporary scene is totally devoid of political comment. Both Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis sneak the odd comment into their work, with Ennis in particular being something of a master of the politics of technology. And of course Brian Wood and Riccardo Burchielli’s work on The DMZ is a thoughtful analysis of the politics and morality of conflict which has had a few things to say about the nature of occupation that are certainly directly applicable to places like Iraq and Gaza – so it can still be done.
In many ways, perhaps it’s a blessing that it isn’t such a common thing any more. After all, while there was not shortage of politically minded comics back when I started reading comics in the eighties, not all that many of them were very good. We’ve talked here before about the worthy but oh so dull CRISIS anthology which ran into the early nineties. Whilst it was well meaning in its woolly leftist outlook, it really was shockingly boring in parts. Do I really want a return to that?
No. No, I’d rather have good, entertaining politics free comics than dull politically aware ones. Of course, you can see the problem here, can’t you?
There aren’t that many good, entertaining, politics free comics out there either, because there just aren’t that many good, entertaining comics around any more*****. So perhaps what I’m missing isn’t the politics, but the intelligence in comics. Political plotlines do force you to think, however dull they are, and there’s been precious little in comics of late that I’d call genuinely thought provoking.
Still, maybe there’s a chance that the cycle of relative brainlessness will end with the Bush Presidency – Obama is making being smart cool again, so you never know…
In other news, might I point you at my friend the accountant and sometime writer Budgie Barnet’s Fast Fiction? Back in 2005 Budgie******, challenged people to set him fast fiction titles. You send him a title and a word, he writes a two hundred word story which features that word. The results have been spectacular, and now those stories are collected together and available to buy on Lulu.com. For just £6.50 you can enjoy a hundred and eighty of Budgie’s finest literary gems, which strikes me as something of a bargain. Budgie is one of the most creative and insightful writers I’ve ever met, and he can achieve more in two hindered words than many lesser wordsmiths could manage in a novel.
Go on – have a bit of a look!
While you’re doing that, don’t forget that I’m still looking for the comics you couldn’t live without, so feel free to drop by the message board and tell me about them!
See you in seven!
*It’s an oft trotted out statistic that more people in the UK belong to the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds than all three major political parties put together.
**They said. As I recall the official numbers were lower than that, but then that’s politics too, innit? It is certainly uncontroversial to say that there were a lot of people there.
***Or even international…
****A tradition that continued into the movies, which it seems to me used the same trick to examine homophobia.
*****As detailed in recent columns.
******Known as the man who did for accountancy what Indiana Jones did for archaeology.
You may not have heard of John Mortimer – so far as I know he never wrote a comic, or ever read one. But he was a fantastic writer. Best known for creating the irrascable barrister Rumpole of the Bailey, Mortimer also wrote for the theatre. Quite how he managed to fit all of this around his career as a top defence barrister and prize quaffer of champagne is beyond me, but he did.
It was a theme which ran through both his “day job” and his writing that makes him particularly worthy of note here. In a world where free speech is constantly under threat, Mortimer dedicated a large part of his career to its defence. Back in the early seventies it was Mortimer who defended the now infamous OZ Magazine: School kids issue against obscenity charges, and only a couple of years ago he wrote a brand new Rumpole story for the radio, Rumpole and the War on Terror, in which he pretty savagely satarized the erosion of civil liberties that has accompanied so-called anti terror legislation.
A man of great principle, talent and wit, John Mortimer passed away last week, aged 85. I suspect I can do no better than the epitaph he penned for himself:
“The defence rests.”
Goodnight old man. I trust there’s plenty of Premier Cru in heaven.
And indeed, it’s been a bad week for inspirational figures…
Tony Hart R.I.P.
I simply can’t believe there’s anybody on my side of the Atlantic that doesn’t remember Tony Hart with affection. In a broadcasting career that spanned decades, he was the man who inspired literally millions of kids to get creative and try their hand at art.
I suspect there are a great many British comics artists who first picked up a pencil because they had seen one of Hart’s shows on the BBC. Some of them might even have had their pictures shown in his famous TV gallery to the sound of twinkly vibraphone music.
Starting before I was born as the resident artist on Vision On, and then on his own programmes Take Hart and Hart Beat (which also introduced the plasticene character Morph, and gave Wallace and Gromit creators Aardman Animation their big break) this calm, avuncular figure made being an artist seem possible to everyone. Oh, and he designed the Blue Peter badge too.
His death this week, aged 83 has taken a slice of my childhood away. But Hart has left a powerful legacy, and we will all miss him terribly.