I. As I know I've said before, I began my two blogs because I desperately needed to get my mind up and thinking again after a protracted, and now thankfully long-gone, illness. Anybody who's ever found themselves in a such a situation will know how fast the mind can loose its edge, its powers of will, of concentration and application. Deliberately choosing to write about mostly super-heroes has forced me, as I hoped it would, to write in some detail against tight self-imposed deadlines about a comparatively-narrow topic which, as must be obvious, I'm no expert in at all. In short, it meant that my mind had to work, and work was undoubtedly something that it needed to be doing.
Yet even now that I've published, between my two blogs, my 100th piece since February, and put to work some one third of a million words in doing so, I find that I'm still so enjoying learning about the construction of superhero comic books, about how they're produced and of the ways in which their various meanings might be read, that's it's hard to know whether it's time to stop or not. For although I'm very much dogged by the feeling that I ought to be turning my attention to some other more practical application of my time, I do enjoy what I'm doing a great deal. It's a luxury, and an education, and a splendid way to potter away the hours. And, in a strange fashion, it's been somewhat like being back at University, albeit bearing a self-set responsibility to no-one but myself to generate these pieces with the clock ticking and no idea where on Earth I ought to go now, let alone next. I suspect that if there'd ever been a degree for Assistant Editors of comic books, I might have happily sunk a good few years and some many thousands of pounds of student loans into the process. In the absence of such a course, and of any access to funding whatsoever even should one exist, I've ended up learning for myself how little I know anyway.
Yet, as ardent a love as my affection of the superhero comic is, I share my adoration, as I suspect do most of you few good and kind visitors who on occasion visit this blog, with the broadest span of what might for want of a better term be called "cartooning". Modernist transport posters from the Twenties and Thirties? Italy's Divisionist painters? Britain's Power Comics of the mid-to-late Sixties? Andrew Graham-Dixon on Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel? Just as the rest of us are, I'm absolutely entranced and quite utterly in awe of all of it.
Far, far too much to learn, far too little time.
II. Although I can usually resist the temptation to stray beyond my self-set territorial limits where the contents of this blog are concerned, I came across a cartoon in a somewhat-battered collection from 1954 by the English cartoonist Giles this morning in a local charity shop which seems to demand some discussion. It was published in the right-wing "Sunday Express" newspaper on October 10th, 1954, almost 56 years ago, and it's a movingly good-humoured commentary in part on the moral panic concerning the effects upon children of reading American Comics which exploded in the UK as well as the USA in that year. And where the daily sister-paper of the "Sunday Express" had spent the year spitting venom at the supposed perversion and corrupting influence of American "Horror" comics, here Giles shows in his own gentle way how unconcerned he is about this specific challenge to traditional British decency. For the whole cartoon is marked by an affectionate insouciance. With the exception of a couple of young tykes displaying a touch of high spirits to the lower-left-front of the frame, there's no suggestion here that these children are going to hell because of their four-colour hobby, or even headed in the direction of the local magistrates court. In fact, the serious and respectful, if demanding, kids even politely use "Please" as they half beg and half demand that the striking dockers go back to work so they can get their beloved "crime comics". The social problem here, if there's anything as a serious as a "problem" at all given the gentleness of the cartoon, is the strike that's stopping children getting their comics, and not the influence of the supposedly pernicious comics at all. (A series of strikes in the London docks were, however, of national concern at the time.) It's such a remarkably calm, and traditionally British, response to the hysteria of the gatekeepers of morality, and as such it's been making me smile fondly about Giles's benevolent view of the world since I first saw it some hours ago.
III. Giles has come to be seen by many who can recall his work as being something of, at best, a gentle old conservative, and, at worst, a spokesman for the blue-rinsed classes so vital to the pockets of the Fleet Street press barons. Yet you'll notice, to take just this one of literally thousands of examples, that the striking dockers in the cartoon above are portrayed as affable and fundamentally decent blokes. If Giles was no one-dimensional social realist, and if his work never contained a vision of poverty which wasn't yet respectable and comfortable, he also never displayed a contempt for ordinary men and women and the struggles of their lives. A son of the toiling classes of Islington himself, Giles's sympathy was always with the powerless against the powerful, and the very worst that might be said of those who challenge the status quo in his work is that they're the victims of their own immaturity and idleness. Uncommonly, where so much of the media of his time were concerned, there's little in the work of Giles of any finger-pointing disdain for, and demonising of, the working classes, and that's something which can be taken-for-granted when his cartoons are considered today. In its fond qualities of restraint and respect for most if not absolutely all of his fellow citizens, Giles's best work still reflects much that was, and still on occasion is, the best of Britain.
IV. Anybody who tries to explain the brilliance of Giles's cartooning skills in a few sentences is an idiot and should be ignored at all costs. Because, quite frankly, Giles could do just about anything with pencil, pen, ink and white paint that the best of his peers could, and only his reluctance to be biting and aggressive in his work holds back his reputation today. After all, critical history loves the artist of extremes and sudden transitions, the challenger of orthodoxy, the dangerous figure detailing horror and revolution. Giles, however, choose to portray the world that even today most of us live in much of the time; an existence marked by consensus and compromise, tolerance and community. That means that his work can be judged lacking in radicalism, in the furnace-shadows of the politically and socially committed, or indeed it might seem to be, until the reader realises that portraying a mild but convincing anti-authoritarianism and a quiet stoical good humour is in itself a radical political stance.
But those artistic skills of his are so numerous and so complete that any attempt to list them short of an epic biography would be futile. Perhaps its best to just focus, therefore, on this splendidly charming cartoon which his myriad skills so ably created. For his portrait of a long-lost London in "Cargo of Crime Comics ..." feels as if it's spot-on, though of course I hesitate to say that it is. But there's the warehouses, the winding cobbled streets, the ranks and ranks of cranes, the workmen in their characteristic flat caps, all of which I'm sure I can recall in some measure or other from the late Sixties. And, so tellingly in the gentle haze of the distance, across the Thames and from across another snaking bend in the river, there's a blur of pencil to summon up St Pauls. It's in part a social documentary of a laudable sort, of what was believed to exist if not what actually did, and it's never weighed down by an excess of spurious detail or the pretensions of a radical or conservative political gesture. (It's exceptional enough in the kindness of what it's saying.) And re-reading Giles, especially from his heyday between the Fifties and the early Seventies, is to catch glimpses of everyday realities from those times largely unrecorded in any other media except cartoons and comic books; the strange curves of the pavements of suburban British roads, as if nobody had thought a straight line might be more functional; the distinctive semi-rural railway stations marked out by wooden picket fences and oddly broad car parks; the bare wooden interiors of the pubs and dully functional cafes. And always, in every single cartoon, there's the obvious mastery of perspective and the capacity to create complex and crowded single-panel narratives shining out. A Giles cartoon, when he was at his height, was rarely merely a gag to swallow and rush on past, which, given that his jokes were perhaps the weakest element of his work, especially as the long decades passed closer to the Nineties, is all well and to the good.
V. I can't say if this wonderful cartoon has ever been reprinted. so it may be that you'll need to find it as I did in "Giles: Ninth Series", the collection of his work from 1954. Though my copy is extremely well-worn, I am already finding it quite easy to treasure. And in its quiet refusal to cash in on the popular distaste for American comic books which much of the press had so deliberately stirred up in that year, and in its portrayal of comic book reading as an essential part of the lives of young children, the cartoon I've scanned here is already one of my favourite works of, yes, art.