Category Archives: Comics

British Undergound Press

Fans of the London underground should head to a small exhibition at the A22 Gallery on Laystall Road between Farringdon and Holborn (hey, let’s split the difference and call it Midtown).

That’s not the London underground that gets us from A to B, but the inky, colourful, progressive newspapers produced by a small coterie of hippie publishers in the 1960s. The exhibition – curated by James Birch and Barry Miles – features just about every copy of Ink, IT, Oz, Friends/Frendz, Black Dwarf and Gandalf’s Garden ever published, strewn tantalisingly out of reach under glass cases. There are also some of the Crumb-inspired comics, such as Nasty Tales.

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There’s also a large amount of ephemera – letters, memos, badges and posters, including an entire wall devoted to the Australian maestro Martin Sharp.

The British underground press – which was conceived, written, edited and published in London – was inspired by the hippie/Beat press that sprang up in America from 1965. These took some inspiration from Beat/avant-garde art magazines, but added a heavy dose of hard and lifestyle politics. They were also printed on offset litho, which made layout easier to manage as there was no need for hot metal plates. These newspapers were by no means ideal – writers were rarely edited, illustrations were crude, there was rampant sexism both in offices and in print – but they were visually exciting and  challenging, advocating both political and cultural revolution.

I wrote a piece about them for Uncut a few years ago, when Mick Farren told me: “IT came out of the Beats – poetry, jazz and art with a bit of lefty politics. I told them this was fucked up, they weren’t talking about the weird changes going on with The Who, or where The Beatles were coming from. I’d say that with all respect to John Coltrane there’s this black geezer in the Bag O’ Nails who has long hair and plays guitar with his teeth, what are we going to do about that.’

Farren also talked to me about the working practices, which were as ad hoc as the financing (IT‘s profits were reinvested in drugs, as this was the best way to make a little go further). ‘It was all hands to the pump,” he said. “What are we going to do now? Well, we’re going to take speed and lay out a newspaper. It was systemised chaos. But a lot of us had learnt how to manage chaos in art school, and that gave us a nodding acquaintance with typesetting and a more than nodding acquaintance with amphetamines. Somehow, it worked.’

Another participant, Mike Lesser told me: ‘Vogue would try to do an IT issue but it didn’t work. They weren’t 36 hours behind deadline, they hadn’t been up for a week and they weren’t stoned.’

The underground’s obsession with sex, drugs and radical politics meant the newspapers and magazines would inevitably get targeted by the police, who were also doing their best to nick rock stars left, right and centre. IT and Oz were both raided and Oz famously charged with obscenity following the Schoolkids issue. The resulting court case could well be seen as the crowing glory of the London counterculture, and there are several exhibits relating to the trial. For Farren, this wasn’t much fun. “At least if you’re busted dealing coke you’ll have had a good time and made a lot of money. But you’re happily going on practising your art and craft and philosophy and suddenly, boom, you’ve got to deal with the law. it’s a fight and you get to know far more about obscenity than you care to know, and there’s also the chance that at the end of it you might have to spend 18 months in prison. That’s a sobering thought, because you have plans for those 18 months.”

The exhibition is accompanied by an excellent catalogue – which can also be purchased online – which has almost every cover of every issue of the leading publications. It’s well worth your money.

 

 

 

 

 

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Read or Dredd: 2000 AD at the Cartoon Museum

Everything I love about British pop culture is encapsulated in 2000AD, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in February 2017. There are several birthday events planned, including an exhibition at the Cartoon Museum in Bloomsbury that runs until April 23rd. I had a look around in the company of the curator Steve Marchant, who enthused about the gorgeous clarity of the original artwork from Dave Gibbons, Brian Bolland, Mike McMahon and Carlos Ezquerra (“At times, the comic looked like it was printed with mud on toilet paper,” he said), while I reacquainted myself with the world of Dredd and Rogue Trooper.

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As a kid, my comic-reading progress went something like this: BeanoTransformersRoy Of The Rovers2000AD. It wasn’t quite that simple – the first comic I ever read was Beezer, and I was a big fan of Whizzer And Chips. When I was reading Transformers, I was also regularly reading Batman and Superman. And for a while, I got really into a horror comic called Scream!.

But in this journey, 2000AD always seemed like the inevitable destination. Even when I was reading the playful pranks and japes of Dennis and Minnie, I’d see 2000AD on the rack at WH Smiths and quiver in confused anticipation at the cover, and the weirdness and violence it promised.

I knew one day I’d be ready.

The exhibition at the Cartoon Museum starts by showing how 2000AD was created and how it developed. I learnt that the initial hero was soppy space curate Dan Dare, in whose blue-eyed banality I saw as the very opposite of what 2000AD stood for. Several other strips – often loosely based on popular movies or TV series – were given a turn until Judge Dredd inevitably took over. And it was Judge Dredd who most fascinated me. He is a brilliant creation, this square-jawed, deadpan, literal-minded, licensed thug who you can never be sure is good, evil or amoral. Sure, America had Batman but he was a playboy billionaire who frequently expressed moral conflict. Dredd, by contrast, was a foot soldier with no exterior life who always knew what he was doing was right because he was law incarnate. In that lack of doubt, he had more in common with supervillains than superheros.

But what made Dredd sing was the universe around him, and especially the surreal, sinister Mega-City One, which had its own architecture, slang, fads and culture. The world of Mega-City was often very funny and satirical – giant tower blocks named after some of the most insignificant 20th century personalities and politicians – and Dredd was this single-minded avatar plodding through it, trying to erase difference and make sense of it all.

The combination was fascinating: a strip could be at once nihilistic, surreal, smart, sarcastic, joyful, violent and morally ambiguous. One strip at the Cartoon Museum illustrates this neatly: Dredd is spending Christmas Day on the beat, by the end of which he has deported an illegal immigrant, shot a fellow judge and punched a well-wisher in the face. And this was the good guy.

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Much less ambiguous was my other favourite character, Rogue Trooper. The exhibition looks at several long-standing strips including Judge Anderson, Strontium Dog and the wonderful Halo Jones, but it was Rogue who I adored. He was weird – taciturn and blue, with a talking gun, back pack and helmet – but he at least provided some moral clarity after Dredd. The concept was simple too, a sort of future war Fugitive, with Rogue out to hunt down the man who betrayed his unit – the classic quest that could be strung out for as long as possible.

It’s heartening to see 2000AD is still popular today. When it was formed, it was assumed it would last around six months, as that was the usual lifespan of new comics – indeed, the aforementioned Scream! folded after 15 issues. That it is still relevant is testament to the skill of the artists and the writers, who continue to ensure there are sufficient parallels with the real world for plots to be relevant. A couple of strips at the Cartoon Museum showcase this perfectly: in one, a patriotic, racist robot sings Rule Britannia and whines about foreigners as it goes on the rampage amid the skycrapers of Brit-Cit; in another, Chief Judge Caligula has taken power, a deranged, rambling permanently enraged narcissist with a huge ego and lustrous hair who insists on building a giant wall around his crumbling empire.

Remind you of anybody?

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