Thursday, 9 April 2009

Where's the meat?

Borders’ announcement of an eightfold increase in graphic novel sales since March has me dreaming of a resurgence (actually it’d be pretty much a protosurgence) in UK comics.

I started collecting properly with
Daredevil #24 (Jan 1967). I’d enjoyed British comics well enough before then – there were great high-concept Valiant strips like Kelly’s Eye and The Steel Claw, and of course The Daleks in TV21 – but discovering Marvel was like when TV went to colour. Character as well as plot moved the stories forward, and Stan Lee and crew were in the process of creating a whole mythology. Glorious, heady stuff for an imaginative 10-year-old.

So it always baffled me that when most people in Britain talked about comics, they meant stories where teacher got a custard pie in his face. Okay, why would they be aware of the really great stuff – when Mjolnir broke, when Black Bolt spoke, when Ultron-5 met his end on a rubbish tip? When Mary Jane stood in that doorway, for heaven’s sake! (Face it, tiger – you hit the jackpot.) But didn’t they know that over 100,000 kids were lapping up Tim Kelly’s adventures in time, the mysterious Victorian adventures of Janus Stark – and, not too many years later, the truly brilliant
Charley’s War?

Supposedly, boys lose interest in reading around the age of 11 or 12. But I think it may be just that they lose interest in the form and the content of print fiction that’s on offer.

My godson and his friends are now the same age as I was when I took my tenpence to the counter for Davedevil’s battle with Ka-Zar. I listen to their unbridled enthusiasm for Assassin’s Creed, Warcraft, God of War, Mirror’s Edge… It’s not just the games, it’s the backstory too. Give them stories they can get their teeth into, stories on which their imagination can take flight, and they’ll read them.

I’m not only talking about sci-fi and war action here, by the way. Rich, developing storylines and three-dimensional, compelling characters are what we need. The best British graphic novel I’ve read all year is Siku’s
The Manga Jesus. It’s literally breath-taking – and, in case you think I’m proselytizing, I say that as a devout agnostic.

British publishers could right now be offering graphic novels that would grab the same kind of dedicated following that Assassin’s Creed does. Only first we have to catch up with America, France, Holland, Japan and the rest of the world where comics aren’t looked down on as just “the funny papers”.

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