Sunday, April 19, 2020

Masters of British Comic Art by David Roach

Masters of British Comic Art

Steve Winders reviews David Roach’s new book about the history of British comics.

With a specially commissioned cover by Brian Bolland showing four of Britain’s most iconic characters, Dan Dare, Judge Dredd, Rupert Bear and Tank Girl responsibly crossing Abbey Road using the Zebra crossing in the finest tradition of the Beatles and with Kolvorok from Jeff Hawke, slipped discreetly into the picture behind them, this epic tome which runs to 384 pages, tells the history of British comics and in my view leaves no stone unturned. The artist and comics authority David Roach makes the bold claim that comics started in Britain and proceeds to prove it. Referring back to the work of Hogarth in the eighteenth century, he concludes that one of his successors, Thomas Rowlandson was really the first cartoon strip artist and provides an example. Taking readers through examples in the next century, he reaches Ally Sloper who first appeared in 1867 and then on to Chips in 1896, which featured Weary Waddles and Tired Tim, immediately recognisable as a comic strip which predated America’s main claim to the first comic strip The Yellow Kid by several months. Although created earlier, The Yellow Kid originally featured in single illustrations.

David Roach moves on from the Victorian era to first explore the humorous comics as they predate those of other genres. Despite the vast range, he manages to include every significant publication and his engaging and informative text is accompanied by examples of pages from many weeklies. Later chapters cover pre-school comics, adventure comics, the influence of artists’ agencies, girls’ comics, newspaper strips, the influence of American comics, underground comics, 2000AD comic and its stable, comic developments from the 1980s, the British invasion of American comics and comics in the 21st century. All of these include many reprinted pages and pictures, in colour and black and white. There is also a large gallery of full page examples of quality artwork, often reprinted from originals and covering the whole range of British comic strip art. Included in the gallery is work by such diverse talents as Bryan Talbot, Mary Tourtel, Leo Baxendale, Reg Bunn, Jamie Hewlett, Frank Bellamy, Sydney Jordan, Shirley Bellwood and Rufus Dayglo, among many others. The book is so thorough that I tested it by listing a group of random significant artists to see if they were mentioned. Only two of my random fifteen were missing, which is remarkable in a publication which covers such a vast area.

I have few criticisms and they are minor. I picked up small errors in my own particular area of interest. Frank Hampson’s strip for Eagle about the life of Christ, is called 'The Road of Courage', not 'The Road to Courage'. The Dan Dare strip moved from the cover to the inside pages of Eagle in March 1962 and not October 1961 as stated and the artists Richard Jennings and Martin Aitchison did not "move on elsewhere" from Eagle in March 1962. Aitchison drew 'The Lost World' and then 'Hornblower', finally leaving in 1963. Jennings scripted 'The Lost World' and then drew 'Earthquake Island' before leaving. However, the very fact that these details are even mentioned in such a broad work is an indication of the depth that David Roach has gone to in his narrative. Most works which cover such a huge area tend to skate over the finer details or make broad misleading statements. This book does not.

A small number of names are spelled incorrectly: Oswald Mosely should read Mosley; Ian Flemming should have just one ‘m’, like his Secret Intelligence Service does; Steven Hawkins is Stephen Hawking; and Alberto Gilolotti is Giolotti. One or two dates given for artists are also wrong. Reg Bunn, for instance, died in 1971, not 1970. Finally such a detailed work would have benefited from an index.

This is a well researched and ambitious book which succeeds admirably in its bold aim of exploring the long and varied history of British comics. Any fan of Britain’s comics will derive great pleasure and learn much from it. It has been written by someone who really knows the comic industry and his knowledge and enthusiasm are evident on every page.

Masters of British Comic Art by David Roach
Rebellion ISBN978-1781-08759-6, 2 April 2020, 384pp, £39.99 / $50 (hardcover, cover by Brian Bolland) Available via Amazon.

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