August 24, 2006

Comics, popular culture and the internet

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Two factors led me to write about this topic. Firstly, I was reading a piece by Umberto Eco about comics the other day and it got me thinking about the place of comics/graphic novels within popular culture. I don't claim to have the insight of an internationally renowned linguistics Professor and novelist but I do quite like comics. The second factor I will explain later.

I find it interesting that comics, on the whole, have been such a minor presence within popular culture and largely looked down upon outside of a certain niche constituency. This is surprising since people tend to be more easily stimulated by visual stimuli than cerebral (compare the popularity of television to reading; how many of us haven't slumped in front of the telly because we're too tired to do anything else?). Yet most children are exposed to comics throughout their youth, most adults enjoy newspaper strips and cartoons, the church saw pictorial narrative as the primary mechanism of reinforcing the gospels to an illiterate, Medieval population and some of the earliest forms of writing were basically figurative pictures.

However, this is a peculiarly Anglo–Saxon issue. On the continent and in Japan, comics were a hugely popular adult medium through the latter half of the last century; not on the scale of television or cinema, but on a level, perhaps, with something like jazz. A myriad of genres continue to flourish (particularly in Japan) and there is little of the monoculture exemplified by the American fetish for super heroes and the UK's (now almost forgotten) love for war and sci–fi, both of which were targeted largely at children or a very niche audience. Outside of the UK and US, comics were (and are) cheap and disposable and, unlike newspapers, pure escapism for commuters.

In recent years, however, something has happened to the role of comics within Anglo–Saxon popular culture. Comics are moving up the food chain and increasingly targeting an intelligent, adult market rather than the adolescents of the past. Not only is Umberto talking about the medium but comic books are entering the popular press as news items (see link and link). Alan Moore - perhaps the most renowned contemporary creator (even if you haven't seen a comic since one was thrust into your grubby, seven year old mitt, you may have heard of 'Watchmen', 'V for Vendetta' or 'League of Extraordinary Gentlemen') - has kicked up a storm of controversy by releasing an unashamedly adult and literary piece, Lost Girls (see link). I won't go into the controversy here but it has been widely reported and can be read across the net (see link and link). At the same time you have works like Neil Gaiman's Sandman being released in 65 hardback volumes (link) that are clearly not aimed at the fifteen year old goths who may have driven its popularity when released in its 'singles' form (I use Warren Ellis' terminology). I'm not saying that graphic novels haven't crossed over into the mainstream before (Maus comes to mind) but this is the first time that there has been the consistent and sustained flow of products indicative of an industry changing and a flow of professionals from the respectable medias in to comics (Jos Whedon, Ian Rankin et al). The change may have begun in the late 80s but only now is it going to reach critical mass.

£3) which are sold in specialised shops miles from the high street. Works like Sandman and, to a lesser extent, Lost Girls prove both media interest and the market but they are too expensive and too inaccessible to most readers.

Which brings me on to the second factor prompting me to write about this. I noticed that someone on Warwick Blogs was writing a web comic. It was okay and critically, it appeared to be written by someone not exposed to the geekier side of the industry I've outlined above. It led me to search google for Web comics and I found 127,000,000 hits (including a useful directory at It seems to me that comics and the web go perfectly together. The web is the ultimate democratisation of information and comics are the perfect, democratic artistic medium; you don't need the skill or talent of a musician, the money and facilities of a film maker or the stamina of an author. Furthermore, I would argue that the web browsing public will find comics more palatable than film (the quality of which is years away from broadcast parity)and pure text because you need to commit so much time to read a sizeable enough chunk to realise what you reading is dross. On the other hand the quality judgement on comics can be made very quickly based on the art alone (or a very quickly read sample). Finally, unlike music (and film to a lesser extent) people write web comics in the same way people write blogs; to put an opinion out there or just to be creative.
So, will comics remain a nerdy, niche medium or will it complete its maturation via the web and become a viable top tier medium? Thoughts?

August 23, 2006

Does the UK need a written constitution? (Or a Minister for Fitness!?!)

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The news today that the government has appointed a Minister for Fitness (why not John Prescott, I hear you scream) has got me thinking about the never ending knee–jerk, headline grabbing policies proposed by the current government that, for at least the last four years, have appeared with no apparent integration nor strategy. Not that I'm saying that the opposition are any better, but then, it's always been something of a fallacy that oppositions should have policies; the clue is in the title, they're their to oppose. You could say that the current administration have simply run out of ideas, are losing momentum or have lost all of their competent spin doctors. I think all three are probably true but what interested me was that these policies seem to be designed to draw attention from the most political crisis of the current era. One that none of the parties appear to be engaging at all with what I think has been exacerbated by successive regimes; the collapse of faith in politicians and the apparent breakdown of the traditional constitutional operation of government.

I think the breakdown of trust and the perversion of the political system are intertwined problems. Politicians are so intent on being elected that they must occupy the middle ground therefore ideology goes out of the window. Saying what you know you must say and not what you believe is lying, which with the addition of spin, press intrusion into private lives and the village mentality of Westminster leads to endemic lying. I agree that this is a simplification but this is a blog not an essay. My point is that in trying to control the message the parties have had to centralise as much power into the hands of the executive as possible. Initially, this simply meant a more robust whip system and the appointment of central candidates with little real world experience but lots of party kudos. Once this had been accomplished (New Labour being the flag carrier) this centralisation of power has spread into every other area of politic; reform of the House of Lords and appointments, party discipline (love him or hate him, Ken Livingstone was treated abominably), civil liberties (ID cards, stop and search etc.), the war on terror and all the abuses implicit in that (dodgy dossiers, camp x–ray, extraordinary rendition)... Almost all of these things have been condemned by the public but there appears to be no accountability other than at the general election and the executive appear free to act as they please without constraint or real, robust interrogation from the Commons, no limitations from a real second chamber and, crucially, no central moral core. Charles Clarke (a good Minister) was thrown to the dogs for something that was not his fault and relatively minor compared to the things that Tony's wormed his way out of and every other Ministerial resignation has been due to a largely non political press witch hunt. The one shining light of decency is Robin Cook.

The United Kingdom has, we are told, historically operated on the basis of an 'unwritten constitution' based on tradition, institutions and the common weal. It's fairly clear that this had a lot to do in the past with class relationships and everyone knowing their place. Without getting into partisan politics, it's pretty clear that since WWII (and possibly the original Parliament Act before WWI) that balanced system has come unstuck. Some of this is good, some bad (and as a caveat, I think much of what has appeared bad in the last decade has merely been made transparent by a far more aggressive press rather than being new phenomena). Nevertheless, I think I would vote for a party who promised to seriously engage with these issues and produce some kind of written constitution that we, the people, could hold the government to task on and that would allow politicians to stand by their convictions and not just try to appeal to the middle ground. The US obviously has huge failings, but at least the Bush administration has been constrained at times (as now with the phone tapping issue) by the US Constitution and I can see air between the stances of the Republicans and Democrats; Tony and David could be interchangeable as party leaders.

If the UK had a constitution, what should it look like? Should it be a straightforward Bill of Rights (like the US one – short and easy to understand, studied in school) that sets out the very clear rights and responsibilities of every member of our society or should it be a rule book on the operation of the state i.e. defining the powers of the PM and the relationship with Parliament (I think the French have something like this – could someone who knows more clarify?).

Does anyone else have views on this?

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