I came across this book on the website of Lib Ed, formerly the Libertarian Teachers Association. It is one of their own publications, written by an author who had also written on topics more obviously relevant to their core mission. Given my interest in all things comics, and 2000AD in particular, it was fairly obvious I needed to read it. When it arrived, I discovered that it had been published in 1999, which might be supposed to consign a book with the subtitle ‘comics and contemporary society’ to the status of historical curiosity. A lot has changed in the last twenty years.
For one thing, John Newsinger spends a good deal of his introduction talking about the recently elected Labour government, and pointing out that they are about as socialist as a solid silver asparagus dish. He then goes on to outline the rather subversive, anti-establishment character of British children’s comics over the preceding twenty-five years. 1999 is actually a rather interesting moment from which to hear this story recounted. The supposed new age of mainstream cultural recognition for comics, and their accompanying creative flowering, was clearly stillborn by this stage; the 1980s had given us Watchmen, Maus, The Dark Knight, V for Vendetta and a significant number of other ‘grown-up’ comics, but by the time Newsinger was writing all the attempts to capitalise on this growth had, in Britain at least, come to nothing. I think that many people would agree with me if I argued that we are now, twenty years later, in what will one day be called the Golden Age of Comics (even though we already supposedly had that from 1938-1956); there is now a fertile combination of a huge commercial comics sector, which is relatively diverse and often very creative in its output, and a thriving independent sector, much of whose publications are as progressive and creatively uncompromising as anything to be found in more widely respected artistic media. Newsinger gives an interesting, well-informed, and perceptive account of the various blind alleys, and looks largely across the Atlantic, to fringe elements of mainstream publishing, for the future of British comics – as that was where most of our writers and artists had gone. It has to be said that even today, 2000AD pretty much is the commercial comics industry in this country.
At the time Newsinger was writing 2000AD was in the doldrums creatively, and it’s a credit to him that his book strikes a reasonably positive tone. It was not a happy era for the British comics fan, and I have to admit that it was a time when I did not read comics at all. The Dredd Phenomenon is a very slim book, and it is clearly a product of its time, but it contains a surprising amount of insight, which I think is still of value today. Its main interest is in exploring why a pretty left-wing group of creators found such success with a character who is to all intents and purposes a fascist boot-boy, presented not as a villain, but as an indestructible, incorruptible hero. It is also an informative history of three important decades in comics history, and although it does not anticipate the subsequent development of the industry (and it would be very hard to have predicted the enormous impact of online marketing and distribution), few of its insights are invalidated by hindsight.