Comic artists, writers, editors, publishers, academics and broadcaster and comics collector Jonathan Ross gathered in person and by Skype at London’s Cartoon Museum this weekend (Saturday 2nd November 2019) to voice support for the preservation of British comics history, and hopes for a new national Comics Museum.
Comics Jam – Preserving British Comics History was organised by the Cartoon Museum, The Scottish Centre for Comics Studies (University of Dundee), and the Comics Research Hub (University of the Arts London). It came about in conjunction with comics collector and historian Peter Hansen, who owns the largest collection of comic art, British comics and other ephemera, and is anxious to see it preserved for the nation.
Bringing together prominent comics scholars, artists and celebrities to discuss the importance of preserving British comics heritage, speakers included comic creators Dave Gibbons (Watchmen), Guardian cartoonist Posy Simmonds, David Roach (2000AD, Doctor Who), author Steve Holland, comics researchers David Huxley, Jenni Scott, Chris Murray, and Julia Round, comics journalist John Freeman and Rob Power from 2000 AD publisher Rebellion.
British comics represent a unique contribution to the culture of the UK, not only offering a way of understanding and interrogating our history but also represent a thriving creative economy, one with national and international reach.
“A national strategy is urgently required to catalogue and map existing collections and archives,” notes Professor Chris Murray from the University of Dundee, “and to develop the resources required to ensure that comics, original comic art, and the ephemera that surrounds the comics (free gifts, advertising, information on fan clubs, and more) is not lost.
“So much of that long history is at risk of disappearing, and not enough is being done to preserve the work being done right now.”
The aim of the Comics Jam event was to celebrate the rich history of British comics, and to consider the importance of comics archives and resources that can be accessed by researchers and the public alike, to find new ways of understanding and experiencing the rich diversity of British comics, and to preserve materials that can inform and inspire future generations of readers and comics creators.
Offering two roundtable discussions, the first, titled “The Story of British Comics” featured a number of comics scholars and creators – Julia Round, Chris Murray (editors of the journal Studies in Comics), Jenni Scott, John Freeman, and David Roach, chaired by Phillip Vaughan – and addressed the importance of having access to archives.
The second roundtable, titled “Celebrating and Preserving British Comics” featured comic collector Peter Hansen, David Huxley, editor of the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics, Rob Power from 2000 AD publisher Rebellion, and Comics Laureate Hannah Berry, chaired by author Steve Holland, and focused on what steps can be taken to enhance access to existing archives, and crucially, what steps need to be taken to preserve collections and materials for the nation.
Rob revealed Rebellion’s plans for its own comics archive and their aim to eventually make it open for researchers, having acquired thousands of comic art pages since 2016 with the buy out of classic vintage comic titles ranging from humour comics Buster, Cor! and Whizzer and Chips to boys comics such as Action and Battle, and girls comic titles such as Jinty, Misty and Tammy; and its 2018 purchase of over 400 separate weekly and monthly titles from TI Media, a massive catalogue of British comic titles dating back more than 130 years that included Comic Cuts, Girls’ Crystal, Lion, Tiger, and more.
Pointing to the commercial value of comics as an art form, not only as a source of delivering snapshots of British cultural history, Peter Hansen noted the recent Seven Stories touring comics exhibition, “Comics! Explore and Create Comic Art”, featuring art from his collection, had helped generate some £60,000 in income for the National Centre for Children’s Books based in the Ouseburn Valley, Newcastle upon Tyne. Also, the 2018 exhibition on Dundee to celebrate the anniversary of the Beano attracted a record-breaking 80,000 visitors.
The day rounded off with chats with three special guests: Watchmen artist Dave Gibbons, Guardian cartoonist Posy Simmonds, and, by Skype from Belfast, broadcaster Jonathan Ross, who discussed their early memories of encountering British comics, and the lasting impression comics have made on their lives and careers. All lent their enthusiastic support to the idea of comic art and the story of British comics history being preserved for the nation.
Peter Hansen has been collecting comics for decades, and the audience were treated to a “video tour” of his collection, covering three large rooms and two floors of what he describes as his “Place of Magic”; a Comics Vault which includes thousands of comics art pages, comics, comics advertising and other promotions, correspondence, comics gifts and more. While he’s always had an enthusiastic interest in the comics form, his collecting was spurred further by the death of comics author and collector Denis Gifford in 2000, and the way the sale of his massive archive was handled in 2006. Aiming to recreate and widen the scope of Gifford’s incredible collection, Peter has dedicated the last thirteen years to building an incredible British comics resource, which he now hopes will find a new home for the nation, revealing that early discussions were taking place with Rebellion for the company to acquire materials representing the titles they now own.
The panel noted the mis-steps in how comic art had, in the past, simply been junked by publishers seeking to save money on storage space, which included consigning huge amounts of work to a furnace back in 1984. Comic artist Dave Gibbons noted that publishers simply did not place a value on art – but didn’t want people to have it, either. “I never saw it treated with respect,” he said.
Horror stories abound, such as the work of girls comics artist Shirley Bellwood, who made an immense contribution to the girls comic for Misty – but only one, unpublished artwork is known to have survived – and as artist David Roach noted, that had been because it had apparently been used as a cutting mat.
Despite the horror stories, there were many positive ideas from the day, and plenty of support for ideas such as a national Comics Museum, which is being championed by Peter Hansen and Professor Christopher Murray, Chair of Comics Studies at the University of Dundee, who hinted discussions on that front for a possible location in Dundee, home to Beano publisher DC Thomson, were currently as a vital but “delicate” stage.
Speaking from Belfast, broadcaster and writer Jonathan Ross, who is also a governor at the BFI, expressed concern that Peter’s collection might disappear into private hands, losing the “rich texture” comics gave, and gives to many, and that it is not only the art in Peter’s collection that is important but seeing how comics were created was important too. “I think there’s a kind of connection to the work when you see that,” he noted, “At the same time, seeing what artists were paid, seeing how many books were produced, seeing when where and how they were distributed – that’s amazing and crucially important to something which is now an industry that’s successfully transplanted itself over to new media platforms… we’re preserving something which is not only culturally hugely significant, I think.
“People have a very strong emotional bond with the comics of their youth,” he argues, “To show that and preserve that, especially to show it to a generation of people who haven’t grown up with it… it should be valued as much as when we look at when War of the Worlds was released in serial form, and the early Dickens stories.”
The Cartoon Museum is currently hosting “Comic Creators, the Famous and the Forgotten”, an exhibition celebrating the world of comics featuring a fascinating range of British comic art from titles as diverse as Beano, 2000 AD, vintage boys and girls comics and more, curated by Comics Curator Steve Marchant, supported National Lottery Heritage Fund. Speaking at the event, Steve noted that the wide-ranging exhibition represented only a quarter of recent acquisitions, thanks to a £100,000 National Lottery grant.
• For further information on this Comics Museum project, please contact Professor Chris Murray, Chair of Comics Studies, School of Humanities, University of Dundee | Email: [email protected] | +44(0)1382 384907
• The Comic Jam talks have been recorded and will be made available via the Comics Scene podcast at https://soundcloud.com/comicscene
• The “Comic Creators, the Famous and the Forgotten” exhibition runs until the end of December at the Cartoon Museum, situated at 63 Wells Street Fitzrovia, London, W1A 3AE and online at https://www.cartoonmuseum.org | Open Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10.30am – 5.30pm; Thursday 10.30am – 8pm; Sunday 12 – 4pm; Closed Mondays. Ticket prices: Adult: £8.50/ Concession (over 60 y/o): £5/ Student: £3 / Under-18s, ArtFund, London Pass, Members: Free