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Not every scholar of medieval English has the privilege of translating a major poetic text, and fewer still have the chance to do it all over again, eighteen years later. My first edition of the Poetic Edda was published in 1996 and about two years ago, I was invited to think about a second edition, one which would expand the number of poems and which could be brought up to date in other ways. But what could have changed as far as this classic work was concerned in the meantime?
Well, unlike a single poem, such as Beowulf or Piers Plowman, the Poetic Edda is a collection of poems. Most of these are to be found in a single manuscript, known as the Codex Regius, kept in the Árnar Magnússonar Manuscript Institute in Reykjavík, Iceland. But, preserved in other Icelandic manuscripts, are a good number of further poems in the same kind of metre, which relate more stories of Norse gods and heroes. Four or five of these poems have always been considered part of the Poetic Edda and I translated them in the first edition. But now there was room for some more.
I’ve added three more eddic poems which I think are interesting in different ways. The first of them is traditionally known as “The Waking of Angantyr.” It tells the story of a warrior-maiden Hervör, who dares to go alone to an eerie island, haunted by her undead father and his eleven brothers. Hervör wants her father’s magical sword Tyrfing, but Angantyr is determined not to give it to her. He’s quite surprised that a girl should dare to come to the uncanny place:
Young girl, I declare you are not like most men,
hanging around by mounds at night
with an engraved spear and in metal of the Goths [armour],
a helmet and corslet before the hall-doors.
At first Angantyr pretends that he doesn’t have the sword, next, he warns (truthfully) that the sword bears a curse, but finally he hands it over to the triumphant Hervör. A bold and determined heroine and an undead corpse — this seemed like a good addition to the new translation. The other additions are “Groa’s Chant” and the “Sayings of Fiolsvinn,” two related poems. A young man called Svipdag has been cursed by his stepmother to go on a quest to find and woo the lovely Menglod, a task fraught with danger: “she has ordered me to go where she knows there’s no going,” Svipdag laments. Wisely, he first visits the grave of his dead mother for advice. Groa is indeed anxious to help and she sings a number of spells over Svipdag. If he crosses rivers or sea, if he’s chained up or assailed by frost, “may no corpse-cold come to ravage your flesh / nor bind your body in its joints.”
Groa’s last spell will help Svipdag if he must “bandy words with the spear-magnificent giant,” and this is exactly what happens. When the hero finally reaches Menglod’s hall, the watchman Fiolsvinn won’t let him in. Entrance is only permitted to the man who can fulfill a whole series of impossible tasks, set up in a circular fashion. Svipdag is about to despair, but wait! No man can come in unless he has carried out this task — or unless his name is Svipdag! And so when Svipdag reveals his name, he gains entry to the hall and is rapturously embraced by Menglod, who chides him lovingly, “A long time I’ve sat on Healing-rock / waiting day after day for you!”
What constitutes a medieval poem? One of the most important poems in the Poetic Edda, “The Seeress’s Prophecy” exists in three different versions in medieval Icelandic manuscripts. Very often editors have combined the texts of all three versions to try to recover what they think might have been the “original” form of the poem. But nowadays scholars tend to think that this is a pointless endeavor. After all, this poem probably existed in oral tradition for a hundred or more years before it was first written down and there was likely never a definitive version. Newer critical thinking argues that it is better to reproduce what actually appears in the medieval manuscripts than to try to find the lost original. And so I’ve provided two versions of this poem, one written down in 1270, and one which was written down about forty years later. In the earlier version, the death of Baldr the Beautiful ushers in the beginning of the end of the world: Ragnarök. Baldr’s mother Frigg had made everything on earth promise not to hurt him, but she did not bother with the mistletoe, for it was so little and frail. Wicked Loki shaped it into a dart and put it in the hands of Baldr’s blind brother Hod when all the gods were amusing themselves by throwing things at Baldr and watching them bounce harmlessly from him. Here Baldr lounges against a wall, while Loki guides the fumbling and hooded Hod:
In the later version, preserved in the Hauksbók manuscript, which was compiled in the first decade of the fourteenth century, Baldr isn’t even mentioned; that seems to be a difference worth recording, and it suggests that the death of Baldr wasn’t necessarily connected to Ragnarök.
And perhaps most importantly, eighteen years ago talking about the reception of the Poetic Edda meant talking about Wagner, William Morris, and Tolkien. Nowadays the influence of these wonderful poems is felt much more widely, in popular culture as well as in the opera house. Hollywood has its Thor films; novelists such as Neil Gaiman in American Gods (2001), young adult authors such as Melvin Burgess and Joanne Harris, even Game of Thrones, with its dragons, ravens, shield-maidens, its endless winter, wolves and giants, have seized on eddic themes and motifs to capture the imaginations of new generations. I hope that this new version of the Poetic Edda, with its additions, updates, and revisions will also find new readers to thrill to these poems, which speak to us in comic, tragic, grandiose, crude, witty, profound, and commonsense tones.
Sci-fi novelist Ursula K. Le Guin will received the National Book Awards 2014 Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. Le Guin will be honored at the 65th National Book Awards Ceremony and Benefit Dinner in New York on November 19th. Author Neil Gaiman will present her with the award.
“Ursula Le Guin has had an extraordinary impact on several generations of readers and, particularly, writers in the United States and around the world,” stated Harold Augenbraum, Executive Director of The National Book Foundation. “She has shown how great writing will obliterate the antiquated—and never really valid—line between popular and literary art. Her influence will be felt for decades to come.”
The award was created in 1988 and Le Guin will be the twenty-seventh author receive the honor. She joins Toni Morrison, E.L. Doctorow, John Ashbery, Joan Didion, Elmore Leonard, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe among others.
As usual, GalleyCat will be reporting live from the awards event, check back in November for our live coverage.
BBC Radio 4 will be creating a six-part dramatization of Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Both writers will be involved with this adaptation.
Actors Mark Heap and Peter Serafinowicz have been brought on to play the lead roles. The first installment is set to air in December 2014. Gaiman announced the project on his Facebook page; the post has received more than 21,000 “likes.”
Here’s more from BBC News: “The story, published in 1990, sees an angel and demon join forces to try and stop the end of the world coming about…The play will be broadcast in five parts across one week, culminating in an hour-long finale on Saturday. The precise transmission dates have yet to be announced.”
Neil Gaiman‘s new graphic novel adaptation of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale Hansel and Gretel hasn’t even hit bookshelves yet, and he’s already scored a book deal.
The book, which was illustrated by Lorenzo Mattotti, will hit bookshelves next month, and in the meantime film producer Juliet blake development will begin development on the film.
Varietyhas the scoop: “Blake, through her Four Chickens for a Fiver banner, has acquired feature rights to Neil Gaiman’s graphic novel version of the classic Brothers Grimm fairytale about a brother and sister threatened by a witch living in a candy house.”
Oh, and they are spreading the lurv out-and-about the greater metropolitan area, with the inaugural “New York Super Week“, held October 3-12, 2014.
It’s a brilliant marketing move. Javits can only hold so many people (I’m guessing 150K max during NYCC), and can only sell so many tickets. This expands the geekery to the general populace, with many free events available!
What’s available, you ask?
Well… there’s Neil Gaiman teaming up with NPR at the Y! (Buy now, before he announces it on his blog!)
Columbia University displaying comics treasures from their collections! (Free!)
Thrilling Adventure Hour (already sold out! but there’s a workshop!)
Author Neil Gaiman has been working on an anthology called Trigger Warning: Short Fictions and Disturbances. William Morrow, a HarperCollins imprint, will release the book on February 03, 2015.
Gaiman revealed on his Tumblr page that he is “finishing the very last short story of the next collection RIGHT NOW. Everything else has been written: the stories, the introduction, all that…” What do you think?
Coraline author Neil Gaiman was challenged by his wife, musicianAmanda Palmer, to take on the #IceBucketChallenge. The video embedded above features Gaiman performing the act with assistance from a group of friends.
In addition to having a bucket of ocean water and ice thrown over his head, Gaiman names a new set of challengers that includes A Song of Ice and Fire author George R.R. Martin. Gaiman calls Martin a “murderer of characters.”
As per usual there are some Wild Things links I’d love to share today. Lemme see here . . . Well we got a real stunner of a review over at Chapter 16. That’s some good and gorgeous stuff going down there. Phil Nel called us “Punchy, lively, and carefully researched.” The blog The Boy Reader gave us some serious love. And today on our blog tour we’re at There’s a Book. And then there’s the video at the Wild Things blog. N.D. Wilson sent us a vid of the true behind-the-scenes story of Boys of Blur. It’s kicking off our video series “Wild Things: Sneaky Peeks” where authors reveal the stories behind their books.
Aw heck. I’ll save you some time. Here’s the video. This guy is amazing:
Don’t forget to keep checking back on the site for a new author a day!
It’s one thing to notice a trend. It’s another entirely to pick up on it, catalog the books that represent it, and post accordingly. I’d noticed in a vague disjointed way that there was a definite uptick in the number of picture books illustrated with photographs this year. Trust Travis Jonker to systematically go through and find every last livin’ lovin’ one in his The State of Photography Illustration in 2014 post. In his comment section I’ve added a couple others I’ve seen. Be sure to do the same!
Since I don’t have school age kids yet I’m not in the school loop at the moment. So it was a BIG shock to me to see the child of a friend of mine having her First Day of Kindergarten picture taken this week. Really? In early August? With that in mind, this may seem a bit late but I care not. The melodic cadences of Jonathan Auxier can be heard here recommending truly fantastic summer children’s book fare. The man has fine fabulous taste.
In other summer news I was pleased as punch to read about the Y’s Summer Learning Loss Prevention Program. You know summer slide? Well it’s good to see someone doing something about it. Check out the info. Check out the stats. Check out the folks trying to combat it.
It’s interesting to read the recent PW article Middle Grade and YA: Where to Draw the Line? which takes the issue from a bookseller P.O.V. Naturally librarians have been struggling with this issue for years. I even conducted a panel at NYPL a couple years ago called Middle Grade Fiction: Surviving the YA Onslaught in which MG authors Rebecca Stead, N.D. Wilson (he’s everywhere!), Jeanne Birdsall, and Adam Gidwitz discussed the industry’s attempts to brand them as YA (you can hear the full incredibly painful and scratchy audio of the talk here). It’s a hot topic.
This. This this this this this. By the way, and completely off-topic, how long until someone writes a YA novel called “This”? The sequel could be named “That”. You’re welcome, publishing industry.
Harry Potter fan art is near and dear to my heart but in a pinch I’m happy to consider Harry Potter official cover art as well. They just released the new British covers (and high bloody time, sayeth the masses). They’re rather fabulous, with the sole flaw of never aging Harry. What poor kid wants to look the same age at 10 as he does at 17? Maybe it’s a wizard thing. Here’s one of the new jackets to chew on:
That might be my favorite Dumbledore to date.
There are whole generations of children’s librarians that went through graduate school reading and learning about educator Kay E. Vandergrift. I was one of them, so I was quite sad to read of her recent passing. The PW obit for her is excellent, particularly the part that reads, “Vandergrift was one of the first professors to establish a significant Web presence, spearheading the use of the Internet as a teaching tool. Her website, a self-declared ‘means of sharing ideas and information with all those interested in literature for children and young adults,’ was considered an important resource for those working with children and linked to more than 500 other sites.” If you need to know your online children’s literary history, the story isn’t complete without Kay. I always hoped she’d get around to including a blog section, but what she had was impressive in its own right. Go take a gander.
I don’t consider myself a chump but there are times when even I get so blinded by a seemingly odd fact on the internet that I eschew common sense and believe it to be correct. Case in point: The Detroit Tigers Dugout Librarian. Oh, how I wanted this to be true. Born in Kalamazoo, a town equidistant between Detroit and Chicago, my baseball loyalties have always been torn between the Tigers and the Cubs (clearly I love lost causes). So the idea of the Tigers having their own librarian . . . well, can you blame me for wanting to believe? I WANNA BEE-LIEVE!
I’ve a new pet peeve. Wanna hear it? Of course you do! I just get a bit peeved when popular sites create these lists of children’s books and do absolutely no research whatsoever so that every book mentioned is something they themselves read as children. That’s why it’s notable when you see something like the remarkable Buzzfeed list 25 Contemporary Picture Books to Help Parents, Teachers, and Kids Talk About Diversity. They don’t lie! There are September 2014 releases here as well as a couple things that are at least 10 years old. It’s a nice mix, really, and a great selection of books. Thanks to Alexandria LaFaye for the link.
So they’re called iPhone wallpapers? I never knew that. Neil Gaiman’s made a score of them based on his children’s books.
Maybe it’s just me but after seeing the literary benches cropping up in England I can’t help but think they make a LOT of sense. More so than painting a statue of a cow or a Peanuts character (can you tell I lived in Minneapolis once?). Here are two beautiful examples:
This month we're featuring a decidedly fantastical themed list of popular kids stories perfect for ages 8-12. Star Wars fans will be stoked to read Jeffrey Brown's Goodnight Darth Vader (an all ages funny read) and Tom Angleberger's latest Origami Yoda book.
Starz and Fremantle Media are teaming up to create a television series adaptation of Neil Gaiman’sAmerican Gods.
According to the A.V. Club, Heroes screenwriter Bryan Fuller will pen the pilot script and Smallville producer Michael Green will take on the showrunner position. Both men along with Gaiman himself will serve as executive producers.
Gaiman had this statement in the press release: “When you create something like American Gods, which attracts fans and obsessives and people who tattoo quotes from it on themselves or each other, and who all, tattooed or not, just care about it deeply, it’s really important to pick your team carefully: you don’t want to let the fans down, or the people who care and have been casting it online since the dawn of recorded history. What I love most about the team who I trust to take it out to the world, is that they are the same kind of fanatics that American Gods has attracted since the start. I haven’t actually checked Bryan Fuller or Michael Green for quote tattoos, but I would not be surprised if they have them.”
Gaiman read his version of Hansel & Gretel during the first half of the show. Toon Books will release the finished graphic novel, which features illustrations by artist Lorenzo Mattotti, on October 28th.
After intermission, Gaiman recited his short story “The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains” while the FourPlay Quartet played music and paintings by illustrator Eddie Campbell were displayed. At the end of the night, Gaiman sang the song “Psycho.” Follow this link to watch hear Gaiman’s singing.
Cindy Cardona is the Tween Librarian at the South Brunswick Public Library, in South Brunswick, NJ. She spends most of her time trying to figure out how to incorporate food into her library programs, trying to make the Children’s Department a little more colorful, and fighting the good fight to convince people that audiobooks are real books too!
Many members of the literary community have been greatly concerned about the Amazon vs. Hachette dispute. Renowned writer Neil Gaiman sat for an interview with Salonand voiced his opinion on this hotly-debated subject.
Gaiman revealed that he has many reasons to feel anger towards Amazon, but he is also trying to keep in mind "that what you’re seeing right now, is huge, giant-level dealings between huge corporations both under non-disclosure, and every time I try to actually read enough stuff to figure out what’s going on here, what I run into is lots of 'We can’t say anything, but he says,' and 'We can’t say anything, but she says.'"
Like The Fault in Our Stars authorJohn Green, Gaiman loves bookstores and wishes "to see is more and more healthy, independent bookshops." Where do you stand on this? What do you think the future holds for the relationship between publishers and Amazon?
Poor Garfield. In his heyday, he was amongst the most beloved characters on the funny pages, his plush likenesses fastened to car windows and his sarcastic barbs adorning office walls around the globe. Then, somewhere along the line, he underwent a pop-cultural re-evaluation. Jim Davis’ strip is now something of a pariah: just look at how "The Simpsons" paired it with "Love Is" as the kind of strip that Milhouse reads. What a comedown for a character once hip enough to be quoted in “Two Tribes” by Frankie Goes to Hollywood. But yet, the orange cat has been saved from cultural oblivion by a peculiar trend: the remixed "Garfield" strip.
Neil Gaiman has donated a special tour book edition of The Ocean at the End of the Lane for a charity eBay auction.
This particular copy features Gaiman's signature on the cover. The interior contains a doodle he drew called "The Clown-shoes of Cthulhu."
Thus far, this item has drawn 30 bids and is currently priced at $610. Bidding will be closed on May 18th. The proceeds will be given to The Neurofibromatosis Network.
The Storytelling Museum, an institution based in the U.K., will host an exhibit called “26 Characters: celebrating childhood story heroes.” This art show features photographs of writers dressed as their favorite childhood literary character.
This exhibition will be on view from April 5th to November 2nd. Photogapher Cambridge Jones captured the pictures of these authors. Some of the authors who took part include Malorie Blackman, Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman.
According to the museum’s official website, Blackman transformed herself into the Wicked Witch of the West and Pratchett sat for his portrait as William Brown from Just William. Gaiman (pictured, via) revealed in a blog post that he drew inspiration from Kenneth Grahame’sThe Wind In The Willows and chose to wear a Badger costume. Will you be seeing this installation?
I’ve been reading Neil Gaiman’s stuff since I discovered The Sandman back in the 1990s, while I was working in a comic book store. Although I haven’t read everything he’s written, I’ve read a lot of it. I was ridiculously excited when it was first announced that he was going to write an episode of Doctor Who and I quickly jumped online to buy tickets when he was speaking at the Athenaeum Theatre back in 2011. I think it’s fair to say that I’m a bit of a Neil Gaiman fan. So how do I deal with the fact that I didn’t care for Fortunately, The Milk…?
I wanted to like it. I wanted to like it, so much — as I always want to like what Gaiman writes. But it just didn’t work for me — at least not on the level of The Graveyard Book (see: “Gaiman’s Graveyard Book”) or Chu’s Days (see: “Neil Gaiman’s sneezy picture book”), both of which I adored. Fortunately, The Milk… was kinda cute. But I also found it predictable in its somewhat forced unpredictableness (if that makes any sense).
But my opinions of Fortunately, The Milk… are irrelevant. After all, I’m sure Gaiman doesn’t care. And it’s not as if my opinion will have any bearing on whether other people purchase it and like it. What’s important here is how my opinion of Fortunately, The Milk… affects ME! Does it nullify my Neil Gaiman fan status? Should I now avoid future Gaiman books on the off chance I don’t care for them?
After the initial shock of my reaction to Fortunately, The Milk…, I did eventually calm down and try to look at things with reason. After thinking about it a little, I realised that this has happened before.
I LOVED the episode that Gaiman wrote for Series 6 of Doctor Who, “The Doctor’s Wife” (See: “Gaiman and the Doctor“). I loved it so much that I immediately started hoping he would write another. And he did. For Series 7 he wrote “Nightmare in Silver”. I was so excited. I expected to love it. Instead, I was massively underwhelmed. For a while there I thought that Gaiman maybe only had one good Doctor Who story in him. But then I read 11 Doctors, 11 Stories, the Doctor Who 50th Anniversary story collection. In it was Gaiman’s “Nothing O’Clock”… and it was brilliant!
So, having reminded myself of this incident, I decided not to give up on Neil Gaiman as a writer — and, more importantly, on myself as a Gaiman fan. I picked up my copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which had been sitting on my must-read-soon pile for way too long, and I read it. And I loved it!
[insert sigh of relief]
The story was small and personal, dealing with one man’s memories of a forgotten childhood incident, and yet it was also on a grand scale —mythic and epic. The characterisation was believable, the setting tangible and the memories vivid. I felt like I was there. I was immersed in this literary ocean. I am so pleased that I read it.
So, folks, what did I learn from all of this? If one of my favourite authors occasionally produces something that I don’t particularly like, it doesn’t mean that all this other writing is suddenly negated. Ergo… I should never dismiss any author just because I didn’t care for one piece of his/her writing. What if Fortunately, The Milk… had been my first experience of Gaiman’s writing? What if I had never picked up another Gaiman book? How much poorer would my literary landscape have been.
Title: The Ocean at the End of the Lane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Narrated by: Neil Gaiman
Publication Date: June 18, 2013
Listening copy via public library
I've written before about my love for Neil Gaiman (and Doctor Who) and fans will not be disappointed by Neil's latest work.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane has tropes familiar to both the author
Oh, what fun we shall have now that the weather is better. Here in New York spring sprang yesterday and all the New Yorkers, as one, exhaled in relief. We are perfectly aware that it can’t last (can anything?) but we’re enjoying it while we can. So sit back and glue your eyes to a computer screen instead of enjoying the respite. Unless you have outdoor wi-fi, of course. Then go wild.
I don’t think I can go any further without bringing up the dual Myers pieces in the Times this past Sunday. As Walter Dean Myers says in his article Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?, “There is work to be done”. That may be so, and certainly we’re hardly at a reasonable level, but I’ve been very impressed by what I’ve seen in 2014. As I mentioned in an earlier post this year, I’m already seeing an uptick in the number of African-American kids not just in books but on the covers as well. Then I looked at Scholastic’s fall list and saw five different middle grade novels with black kids front and center. Five is nice, but that hardly means we’re out of the woods. Note that Walter Dean Myers wrote a somewhat similar piece for the Times in 1986 called I Actually Thought We Would Revolutionize the Industry (thanks to Debbie Reese for the heads up). In it he basically says that there were only 450 books on the black industry in the mid-80s. One shudders to think what the number is at this precise moment in time. Oh wait. According to the CCBC it’s 93. Now go read The Apartheid of Children’s Literature by Chris Myers and think upon that a bit.
I don’t like to pick favorites, but if I had to select my favorite blog post from the last few days, the vote would have to go wholeheartedly to the 100 Scope Notes piece The 33%: 2014 Books from Newbery Winners. The premise is simple. After doing the math Travis determined that a full 33% of Newbery winners go on to win again. He then goes the logical next step and collects all the middle grade novels out this year by previous winners. There was stuff I had no idea about in there (a new Christopher Paul Curtis?!?!). Required reading of the day then.
New list time! So it would seem that the National Science Teachers Association has come up with their list called Outstanding Science Trade Books for Students K–12: 2014 (Books published in 2013). Not a common topic but a necessary one. I was happy to see a lot of favorites on there. Well done, winners! Now go ye, my pretties, and spread this info to every science teacher struggling with Common Core that you know. Thanks to Amie Wright for the link.
Speaking of lists, the site List Challenges came up with their 50 Best Books for Kids. I was all set to pooh-pooh it when I saw they’d included Anna Hibiscus AND The Arrival. Shoot. They did their homework really well. I’ve read all but two (and it won’t be the two you think). How did you do?
Meanwhile, it’s an interesting list and well worth looking at. They’ve released the contenders for the 2014 E.B. White Read-Aloud Award. Lots of good books there, but you probably know who I’ll be supporting. It’s a tough call but I’m Team Unicorn. Go team!
This has absolutely nothing to do with anything else, aside from the fact that everyone’s clamoring for children’s books on WWI this year thanks to the 100 year anniversary. With that in mind, here’s a sense of what it would have looked like If WWI Was a Bar Fight. Or you can just do what I’m doing and wait for the latest Nathan Hale book Treaties, Trenches, Mud and Blood. Can’t wait to see that one!
Utterly fascinating piece in Arcade this week equating the changes happening at the main branch of NYPL with the movie Ghostbusters. It’s not as nutty as it sounds. Check out Para-Library Science at the NYPL if you don’t believe me.
Then, to wash the academe from your gray cells, you can read eharmony’s 15 Reasons to Date a Librarian. It’s a rather optimistic view of our profession (while I would love to believe that we ALL have predictable hours . . .) but still cute. Thanks to Amie for the link.
Man, that Marjorie Ingall’s one smart cookie. She watches that new Neil DeGrasse Tyson show Cosmos and what does she do? She comes up with a complimentary reading list for kids. That is how you DO IT, people!
If you haven’t seen this already then I’d like you to guess as to the identity of this children’s book author dressed up as his favorite children’s book character.
A hint: The character is Badger from The Wind in the Willows. And no. This isn’t Alice Cooper. *pictures what an Alice Cooper children’s book might consist of* The answer is here.
Newbery Medal-winning author Neil Gaiman headlined “a semi-secret late-night event” during the TED 2014 conference. Brain Pickings reports that Gaiman performed recitations of a ghost story and an essay entitled “Ghost in the Machine.”
Here’s an excerpt from Gaiman’s readings: “We have been telling each other tales of otherness, of life beyond the grave, for a long time; stories that prickle the flesh and make the shadows deeper and, most important, remind us that we live, and that there is something special, something unique and remarkable about the state of being alive. Fear is a wonderful thing, in small doses.”
The founding fathers would turn in their graves. The British Library is hosting an exhibition of publications in a medium once accused of undermining literacy, decency and the very establishment itself: comics.
Deadline 3 - which published Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl
Previously I’ve been at pains to emphasise that comics are about much more than men in lycra, but we can’t ignore the lycra or the science fiction and fantasy, which is in strong evidence here. What deserves wide recognition, however, is the role of attitude in providing the energy of iconoclastic creativity that has seen so many writers and artists whose target audience was originally children become internationally hugely influential.
British comics and their creators have an anarchic spirit. In the late nineteenth century the 'Penny Dreadfuls' were sometimes considered so subversive and dangerous to the Establishment (in fomenting an industrial dispute) that at one point printing presses used for printing them were destroyed by the authorities, as documented in Martin Barker’s book Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics.
There is a direct line from these through Fleetway’s Action comic to 2000AD, which in the late ‘70s and ‘80s saw the work of Pat Mills and John Wagner produce strips such as Nemesis the Warlock, which satirised corrupt organised religion, and Judge Dredd, which satirised just about everything including a corrupt totalitarian state (although sometimes Dredd seemed as though it was applauding the very summary dispensation of justice which it avowedly condemned).
Action was created in 1975 by Pat Mills for publishing house IPC. Soon banned for its violent content it nevertheless spawned 2000AD, the home of Judge Dredd.
Jamie's Tank Girl - whom he called a female Judge Dredd with bigger guns on speed.
2000AD could have been deliberately designed to be the kind of left-wing comic imagined by George Orwell in this fascinating article he wrote about the heavily middle and upper class boys’ comics like Gem, Magnet, Hotspur, Wizard and so on.
These class-ridden, patriotic comics were produced by the ultra-conservative family-owned Scottish DC Thompson publishers, for much of the twentieth century - up until the days of punk rock as staple fare for boys, a deliberate antidote to the previous, anarchic Penny Dreadfuls. Orwell describes them in depth in the article and observes their propaganda value as follows:
“the stuff is read somewhere between the ages of twelve and eighteen by a very large proportion, perhaps an actual majority, of English boys, including many who will never read anything else except newspapers; and along with it they are absorbing a set of beliefs which would be regarded as hopelessly out of date in the Central Office of the Conservative Party.”
The cover of Revolver 1, which serialised Grant Morrison's deconstruction of Dan Dare
That aside, there is another ideological gradation that has Leo Baxendale’s Bash Street Kids (also published by DC Thompson in the Beano) and 2000AD at one end - produced by angry, anti-authoritarian working class writers and artists - and the middle class Frank Hampton’s neo-Imperialistic Dan Dare at the other.
Common to both is the preoccupation with slapstick humour, fantasy and science fiction as a way of boggling minds and examining present-day trends taken to extremes.
Orwell himself notes the value of Sci-Fi (which he calls Scientifiction) in this fascinating sentence:
“Whereas the Gem and Magnet derive from Dickens and Kipling, the Wizard, Champion, Modern Boy, etc., owe a great deal to H. G. Wells, who, rather than Jules Verne, is the father of ‘Scientifiction’.”
You can even position later writers, influenced by these earlier names, on this spectrum, such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison on the left, and Neil Gaiman more in centre-ground. Grant slyly subverted Dan Dare himself , imagining him as an older man sadly looking back on the glory days of space empire in the pages of Revolver in the late ‘80s.
The ‘80s was a key time, because it was then that the kids who had been brought up on the Beano and 2000AD hit adulthood and it became cool to continue reading comics. Inspired by Moore’s Watchmen and V for Vendetta, and the American Frank Miller’s Batman: Dark Knight Returns, younger artists and writers gave birth to an explosion of creativity.
The cover of Crisis issue 3 - probably the closest ever to Orwell's dream of a left wing comic.
Pat Mills' and Carlos Ezquerra's Third World War deliberately made very cool heroes out of disabled, black, gay or female characters.
Eight years after my own story in Marvel's Captain Britain about the Northern Ireland Troubles was censored, Fleetway felt able to publish, in the overtly political Crisis comic, Garth Ennis' True Faith, (but even that graphic novel was scandalously withdrawn from sale, following complaints).
Crisis was largely Pat Mills' brainchild. Overtly political and radical it ran the amazing anti-American Imperialism strip Third World War, which attacked CIA involvement in central and south American countries, a topic already tackled in comics by Alan Moore's and Bill Sienkiewicz's documentary graphic novel, Brought to Light.
The cover of Doc Chaos 1 by me, Lawrence Gray and Phil Elliott published by Escape
Independent creator-owned comics sprang up all over the place, from my own satirical Doc Chaos, published by Gravett's Escape imprint, to Deadline, from Brett Ewins and Steve Dillon, which came directly from a collision between comics and the new House music club culture, the true star of which was to become Jamie Hewlett's Tank Girl. And most of us know what happened when Hewlett met Blur's Damon Albarn: Gorillaz, the first band in history that was made up of comics characters.
Peter Stanbury's and Paul Gravett's Escape magazine - beautifully designed, arty and hip.
I must given a special mention to Don Melia and Lionel Gracey-Whitman for publishing Aargh!, Heartbreak Hotel magazine with the supplement BLAAM! Because the mere fact that this anti-homophobic publication could be a comic was testimony to how far the medium had come since the days of Wizard and Hotspur weekly comics in which homosexuality was a heavily suppressed element. Here is Orwell describing a cover image: “ a nearly naked man of terrific muscular development has just seized a lion by the tail and flung it thirty yards over the wall of an arena”.
Heartbreak Hotel issue 5 cover by Duncan Fegredo
The first comic explicitly for black people, Sphinx
Repossession Blues from the pages of Blaam!
A cover of chaos magick journal Chaos International which shows the use of comics iconography - the exchange of ideas went both ways.
There was a huge amount of talent around in the ‘80s, much of which will be on evidence in the British Library show, but I find it fascinating that I, along with the far more successful Bryan Talbot, Grant Morrison, Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman, (particularly the first two) were also at the time heavily into chaos magick. We’d discuss this when we met occasionally at the bar that used to be at the foot of Centrepoint, near Titan Books’ offices where I worked, and Forbidden Planet bookshop, and at comics conventions.
Alan only went public on this more recently, but Grant overtly used his research in long-running strips such as the intensely surreal Doom Patrol and subsequently The Invisibles, both for DC.
It is not necessary to believe in any of the gods and forces invoked by magical ritual in chaos magick to utilise its effects. The point for all of us was that Nothing is Forbidden, Everything is Permitted, to use Aleister Crowley’s mantra. Chaos magick provided an almost limitless kit of tools to access the far reaches of the imagination. I learned my tricks from a group that met every week in Greenwich, above Bulldog’s café, from the legendary Charlie Brewster, aka Choronzon 666.
I used this massive wellspring of creativity when writing The Z-Men for Brendan McCarthy. Brendan was a maverick comics artist who started work in 2000AD, later becoming like many comics artists a film storyboarder, who was renowned for his psychedelic, mystical artwork.
All of us were also heavily influenced by Dada and Surrealism – this was the premier topic of my undergraduate degree. It is very obvious in Grant’s Doom Patrol - just read my favourite story The Painting That Ate Paris; and how else could you come up with a superhero who is an entire street (named - of course - Danny)?
Pure anarcho-comics: Hooligna Press & Pete Mastin's Faction File collected from the pages of squatting magazine Crowbar - back full circle to the aims of the Penny Dreadfuls
Arguably, the most successful comics writers working for American publishers in the ‘80s and ‘90s were Neil, Alan and Grant – Brits all. Frank Miller, also a giant, is American of course, and, while anarchic, is sympathetic to the other end of anarchism – right wing libertarian, which approves the right to bear arms and use them against Commie radicals.
I attribute all of their success not just to their supreme storytelling abilities but to their political views and their involvement in anything occult, arcane and extreme, because in these genres of comics, what readers demand is out-there imagination – and it takes some serious head-space distorting tricks to cultivate a mind that can repeatedly and frequently, on demand, to a punishing production schedule, come up with the mind-boggling concepts, characters and storylines required.
These lessons were not lost on the more recent wave of massively successful British writers, such as Warren Ellis and Brian Hitch, the creators of The Authority, (just read Warren Ellis' Transmetropolitan for a taste of his brand of anarchy).
And I believe there are lessons here for all writers and artists who aim at children and teens, that most demanding of all audiences, to help them feed and stoke the furnaces of creativity and imagination.
I could even attempt to sum them up in the following seven guidelines. Bear in mind that these are methods I am suggesting, and in no way am I advocating tackling a particular kind of subject matter. These are ways of researching, preparing to write and draw, and of writing and drawing itself:
Feed your mind with stuff from the far reaches of experience; and apply that to the everyday.