British Comics: A Cultural History. By James Chapman. Reaktion Books. 2011. 304pp. £25.00.


This is a very welcome addition to the historical turn in the study of popular culture as it links the relationship of the British comic to broader social trends, especially those to do with children's and teenager audiences. It is a handsome, well-illustrated book, following a chronological order of development from what we might call the ‘pre-history’ of comics and their various American influences, the ‘Golden Age’ of the 1950s and 1960s, to contemporary discussions of the graphic novel, adult comics and alternative approaches to the comic as a communicative form.

It provides a longitudinal reappraisal of the value of the ‘visual’ and it places this within broader developments of popular print culture starting, as with much else in mass culture, with Alfred Harmsworth's journalism of the late Victorian period. It is particularly strong on the institutional and commercial development of comics and often provides fascinating biographical details to complement these. In general historical terms, the author provides a basic context for the reception as well as the production of these magazines, but this rarely strays from conventional narratives of the twentieth century, with Arthur Marwick's work acting as an all-too-easy reference point.

In terms of the book's narrative arc, Chapman jumps to an early conclusion, setting his stall out to declare that comics reflected the prevailing prejudices of the times, but as elsewhere in the debates about media effects, these flows of influence are more sophisticated than this. In the absence of a consistent theoretical framing of such issues he also demonstrably contradicts himself, first arguing that comics were products of their time and then showing examples where comics run creatively counter to those very times. I'm thinking particularly about the underexplored contrasts, for instance, between late Victorian imperialist comics, the attempts to create educational comics and Dan Dare (aka ‘The Flying Parson’) and the counter/subcultural tropes of the late twentieth century. At each of these points there is potential to explore beyond the two-dimensional.

Furthermore, the book misses an important trick in its rather aggressive assertion that it can occupy a relatively under-theorized space. What of popular culture itself and how do comics fit into the interesting folds of that set of discussions? It is disappointing to have a few asides to Matthew Arnold and a smattering of Hoggart and Orwell and pretend that this does justice to the potential sophistication of debate on comics, which could have emerged from this project. Without a more detailed discussion of popular culture we are left wondering quite why, according to the author, ‘anarchy and mischief making’ should be as important for commercial success as he claims. The narrative and the critique flow well, but they remain at a largely superficial level. I certainly feel that there is more potential and indeed more necessity for critical literature on occasions. The author sets out his stall by claiming to eschew what he clearly sees as the bêtes noires of his field and yet on page 113 he sounds as if he is paraphrasing Valdimir Propp, presumably via Roland Barthes's reading of the influential Russian formalist. When theory is indispensable, as in discussion of contemporary debates on violence and the comic form, he is not beyond importing the excellent work of Martin Barker to prove his points. Yet these forays remain, as random as they are, ultimately unconvincing. Comics may refract many debates on literacy levels and ‘moral panic’, as within other mass media forms. Even the lowly status of the ‘visual’, as opposed to the literary, is a well-trodden and interesting critical path which the author feels that comics can resist treading. This aspect is not only of interest in post-television times but could well have been explored as a continuation of the role of the visual in print culture with the elite press's decision to ignore the technologies of the visual for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

This neglect of historical depth and theoretical breadth has other unintended consequences as the whole debate emerging from feminist popular cultural scholarship on teenage girls' magazines and comics is ducked. Earlier discussions of ‘Jane’ as a strip cartoon in the Daily Mirror is not cross-referenced to the interesting observations made by Bingham (2004) on this comic character and her place in the representation of femininity in the broader popular press of the time.

In terms of specifics, I'm not sure that there was much of an overlap between the Ealing comedies, most of which (at least the successful and critically well regarded ones) were produced in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and Dixon of Dock Green, which started just as these were coming to an end and which ran until the 1970s. The Daily Mirror was not outselling the Daily Express during the Second World War. This occurred in the post-war period. One expects more precision in popular cultural reference points from a cultural historian.

Overall, this book is a fascinating read, full of insight and good humour, but in skirting around many of the central themes which criss-cross the comic as a media form it misses the opportunity to provide a really satisfying cultural history and ends up a triumph of narrative over analysis. Such a popular and protean form as the comic could well have been used to interrogate more closely some of the many theoretical and historical concerns that are merely touched upon here.