An Overview of the History of British Comics

(by Mike Kidson, reproduced with his kind permission)

The British weekly comic as we know and love it emerged in the 1890s as part of a boom in cheap, popular magazine and newspaper publishing which resulted directly from the provision of basic education for all that had been initiated by the government's Education Act of 1870. The connection is that by 20 years after the Education Act and the setting up of thousands of schools across the country, we had a working class that was almost entirely able to read, and hungry for cheap reading matter.

And that's the key to the reputation of comics within the UK - they first appeared in response to a demand for easy *reading* matter, *not* for pictorial matter. Initially they were very successful - some 40 titles were launched during the 1890s, several of them lasting for a long while (two of the earliest, COMIC CUTS and ILLUSTRATED CHIPS, ran continuously from 1890 to 1953). But by about 1900 they were competing with a slew of similarly priced story magazines and newspapers...and, being largely pictorial, were already regarded as the preferred reading choice of the barely literate. In a society where so much importance was attached to basic literacy, this was a major stigma: Robert Roberts, in his book THE CLASSIC SLUM (a sociological study of the early 20th century working class community he grew up in), recounts how around 1905 people on the street would openly sneer at adults who were seen buying comics. The publishers responded by toning down the material and converting the comics into children's material: the first comic launched specifically for kids is believed to have been THE RAINBOW (1912), but the alteration for kids of the older comics had been evident for years by then.

Since then, comics have periodically come under attack in the UK, usually on the grounds that they're too rough or excessively violent for kiddies: as recently as 1977, 2000A.D. was criticised by various local watchdog organisations and even banned for a while in some towns.

Ironically, the biggest attack on comics coincided with the witch hunt in America in the early 1950s, following similar lines of argument (EC Comics and other horror material were spotlighted), but for very different reasons. Martin Barker's book A HAUNT OF FEARS lays out his very detailed research into the origins of the business, and shows that it was largely driven by a desire on the part of the National Union of Teachers to *stop* the flow of American comics into the UK. In other words, it was a deliberate *denial* of any cultural superiority on the part of the USA - the teachers didn't want British kids to be "infected" by American culture, at a time when the USA had finally abandoned completely the policy of non-involvement with Europe which dated right back to Thomas Jefferson. As a result, any formal importation of US comics into Britain actually ceased for a while (it resumed in 1958), and in the early 1960s there was a massive bias against US comics: I personally saw teachers and parents tear American comics to pieces on sight at that time.

The period described above also saw an attempt to create respectable British comics, if still ones intended only for children: EAGLE (with Dan Dare as the most famous strip of several) and its siblings SWIFT, GIRL and ROBIN. They were printed on decent, glossy paper, used better colour printing techniques than other comics, and for a long time remained the only comics really approved of by British parents... not least because they were edited by a Church of England vicar who made sure that there was always a strong element of Christian teaching underlying the stories. Research indicates that they weren't generally so popular with kids, though - they were "comics your parents bought for you" - and in general the stories and art weren't first rate, especially in SWIFT, ROBIN and GIRL.

Meanwhile, the older style of "inky" weeklies, mostly black and white and printed on very cheap newsprint, survived and thrived and were loved by generations of us kids. But we didn't keep them... nobody really considered them to be worth keeping. The literacy thing from the early 20th century still held true - they weren't books, they were disposable - and in the face of posh-looking material like EAGLE they were often dismissed as being low class. Never estimate the capacity of British society for class distinction and snobbishness. :-)

At the same time, American comics were exciting, not necessarily because they were in any way better but because they were different - there were very few superheroes in U.K. comics, and no full colour comics here - but mostly because they were disapproved of... you had to smuggle them into the house and keep them hidden. Never underestimate the appeal of contraband, either. ;-) The turning point was probably ITV's decision to run the Batman TV show in the mid 60s: that brought an American comics character into the cultural mainstream, and shortly thereafter one publisher began reprinting Marvel comics, cut up into serial segments and arranged in the Brit weekly format. In 1970 Marvel set up a UK branch, re-running their own material in numerous black and white titles, again cut up into the standard Brit anthology weeklies. *That's* where a lot of British comics fans first got their taste for US comics... and the appeal was not down to any idea of American cultural superiority, but simply that these were comics you could read when you were over about age 11 and enjoy. Traditional British comics didn't offer anything like that (except a few for girls): a few of us still love them for what they are, but most of us also stopped reading them at a certain age and moved over to American stuff.

And now US comics are dominant in the UK... largely because they're not so obviously for kids as the home grown product. As more and more alternative forms of entertainment for kids have sprung up - Gameboys, Playstations, computers in general, even fashion - the old British comics have withered away almost to non-existence. Some of those who moved on to read US books set up comic shops devoted to those, fanzines thrived and so on... and today we have basically the same setup as in the USA, albeit with a few survivals and an odd assortment of almost random back issues to remind us that there was once a massive British comics industry. The seeds of its collapse were sewn by an ingrained bias against visual storytelling material combined with an inherent British snobbishness.

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