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The Actuary The magazine of the Institute & Faculty of Actuaries
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Arts: Comic relief

Last month I offered some suggestions about what to see at this year’s Edinburgh Festival. When I shared these thoughts with a work colleague, I was soon informed that I had made some glaring omissions, with one of them truly unforgivable — I had neglected to mention that Grant Morrison was appearing at the Book Festival.

“Who is Grant Morrison?” I asked.

“Grant Morrison is one of the most acclaimed writers in comic book history,” I was told.

Oh.

So to lead me out of the mire of comic book ignorance, here is my aforementioned colleague, Alan Maxwell.

Alan: Fans of Dennis the Menace, look away now: I’m going to talk seriously about comics. This should not be taken as being in any way disrespectful to The Beano, but rather an essential pre-emptive strike on the ‘comics are for kids’ camp.

There is, of course, a growing number of people who no longer view comics as childish, perhaps as a result of exposure to the genre through a recent spate of high-profile — though often low-quality — Hollywood movies. For large parts of society, however, the word ‘comic’ still equates to cartoon scamps and men sporting their underwear outside their trousers.

Those who doubt that superheroes can partake in serious fiction should turn to two seminal 1986 works, the dystopian nightmare of Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, which threw an aging Batman into a violent future in which crime is out of control and Reagan is still in charge. (The Cold War may have threatened us all with nuclear annihilation but, on the plus side, it really made for some great comics.)

Attitudes to the comic strip vary widely throughout the world. In parts of Asia, the sight of a grown-up reading a comic on the train to work is perfectly normal, rather than a signal to move a carriage away from the weird guy. In Europe there are museums and festivals celebrating the art form in all its glory, with government funding no less. Alas, in Britain the battle for acceptance is still being fought.

It’s ironic, really. In almost every form of art or entertainment, the people of this sceptred isle are quick to cheer on the Brit, whether it be another glorious failure in a major sporting event or pretending to care who picks up an Oscar for Best Sound Editing.

In the medium of comics, however, Britain has produced many of the most talented writers and artists over the past 30 years, and yet they can’t appear on television without someone adding a ‘KAPOW!’ graphic or overlaying the 1960s Batman theme.

Attempts to bring more respectability to the medium, such as use of the terms ‘graphic novels’ and ‘sequential art’, are akin to releasing Harry Potter books in different covers to avoid embarrassment to adults. There is nothing to be ashamed of. Comics are stories told in pictures — no different to cave paintings or the Bayeux Tapestry — and as such they should be regarded as a natural progression of one of the oldest forms of storytelling.

In World War II, father of modern American comics Will Eisner recognised
the potential of the genre to educate and inform, presenting American GIs
with illustrated maintenance manuals. With that potential in mind, I’ll sign off with a few recommendations for those who still can’t get past the whole spandex-clad aliens issue.

Sceptics could do worse than to begin with Scott McCloud’s landmark metacomic Understanding Comics, which not only tells the history of the medium but explains its underlying mechanics.

If you find yourself lamenting the death of quality television journalism, you could change medium and check out Burma Chronicle by Canadian author Guy Delisle, or the various works of artist/journalist Joe Sacco (Palestine, Safe Area GoraĹžde).

Perhaps the most impressive work of serious comics is Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Based on the wartime experiences of his father, a Polish Jew, the ironic depiction of its animal characters in a manner reflecting Nazi propaganda (Jews represented by mice, Nazis by cats) illustrates well the power and versatility of the visual aspect of the genre. It remains the only comic book to have been awarded a Pulitzer Prize.

So next time you’re in your local bookshop, why not try something new? Stride purposefully past the new best-selling teenage vampire novel, or the latest C-list celebrity autobiography, and head for the section headed Graphic Novels.

If you start nervously sweating at the prospect of being outed as a comic lover when approached by a store employee, don’t worry — it’s easy enough to retain credibility by rattling off a simple question: “Do you have anything by Grant Morrison?”

Alan Maxwell is a business analyst with Royal London