I understand roughly two-thirds of Superman’s credo. No, not, “Up, up, and away.” I get that one. I’m talking about, “Fighting for truth, justice, and the American way.” So, truth? Sure. Justice? In theory, sure. But…the American way? It’s confusing enough in real life, but, in comics, what exactly is “the American way?”
Certainly, the definition has never been a fixed one. In any form of art or entertainment the American ideal fluctuates from year to year and generation to generation. And, somewhat surprisingly, even the theoretical pre-requisite of being American does not seem to stand. Hollywood icons from Mel Gibson to Mike Meyers to Arnold Schwartzenegger are foreigners. The soundtrack of American music over the years is dominated with an overseas theme from the British invasion of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Who to the later-day beat of Chumbawumba, Seal, the Spice Girls, and a newly incarnated Santana. Our home-spun authors still have centuries of canonical European literature stacked against them, from Chaucer and Dante to Austin and Dickens. Our sports thrive on the athletic prowess of many across-the-border talents: Pedro Martinez, Wayne Gretzky, Vlade Divak, and Insert-Your-Favorite-Here. In fact, the only U.S. venue that in any way limits the inclusion of peoples from other lands would be the American government itself. The presidency requires its candidates to be at least 35 and a natural, not naturalized, citizen. But, only a simple Amendment spearheaded by Henry Kissinger would be needed to overturn that last, archaic bastion of national “purity.” American purity is a myth and a misnomer. Anything described as one-hundred percent American is inherently made up of component multi-national pieces. Hopefully, this is an instance where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Regardless, even as comic books experience a financial crisis with pro wrestling, the Internet, and school killings all nipping at its heels, a creative Renaissance is in progress. Perhaps it started years ago, as early as the ‘80s, but the American comic book industry is now largely in the debt of one group of people: The British.
That isn’t to say that they’re aren’t a slew of fabulous stateside comic creators and other international talents, but a disproportionate minority of Britons have surfaced at the top of our homegrown business. I also can’t say that I know the mechanics or specific train of events that lead to this U.K. dominance, but the evidence is apparent. Names like Alan Moore (From Hell, Watchmen, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen), Neil Gaiman (Sandman), Jamie Delano (Hellblazer), Grant Morrison (The Invisibles, JLA), Garth Ennis & Steve Dillon (Preacher, The Punisher), Warren Ellis (Authority, Transmetropolitan, X-Man), Alan Davis (X-Men), and others all sit atop the hottest current titles. Based on Wizard: The Comics Magazine‘s March issue, four of its Top Ten Writers are British with Brian Hitch of The Authority being one of the Top Ten Artists.
Movies have the Oscars, television has the Emmys, and advertising has the Clios Comics have the Eisners. More to the point, our aforementioned Britons have the Eisners. This year’s nominations for the Will Eisner Comic Industry Awards Comic were posted online at the San Diego International Comic-Con’s Web site last week with the imported talents of Gaiman, Moore, Ellis, Ennis, Dillon, Eddie Campbell, Dave McKean, and Sergio Aragones dominating the list. While the results will not be released until July, how many sixpence do you want to bet that the British empire will emerge as victorious critically as they have commercially?
Besides their nationality, is there a common element? Obviously, there’s nothing on the cover of each issue saying “BRITISH” in big letters. In fact, Alan Moore does quite the opposite, publishing his works under the name “America’s Best Comics.” Nor is there a true agenda here to what Jaime Delano terms the “British recolonization.” So, what is it about the plying of their craft that attracts fans more strongly and more consistently than the average American professional?
Of course, there no scientific study I can turn to, so I offer what is admittedly my personal and professional opinion all in one word: Maturity. American writers are not immature. But, they were and are raised in a culture where comics are still perceived as a second, even third, rate genre. Each writer had to overcome our culture where, generally, one is to be ashamed of enjoying comics, much less writing or drawing intelligently for them. This may have changed slightly in recent years, but a good number of our homegrown professionals were tempered in shame. Conversely, European and Asian communities long ago accepted comics as a legitimate form of literature and art. Which is why none of the British creators have any problem with being explicit, with being complex, and with being intelligent. Whereas a mainstream American writer might inadvertently dumb-down and simplify his or her work to accommodate the audience, Britons, it would seem, challenge the same consumers. They ask readers to step up and enjoy the medium on a higher level. A level at which comics should always be operating. Would one ever have asked Ayn Rand or James Joyce to make their work easier for the sake of the erroneously limited readership and at the expense of their art.
Certainly, Frank Miller is American, yet has never backed down from graphic and mature matter in Sin City. Conversely, a talented U.S. writer like Kurt Busiek was forced to slowly and painfully explain a minor incongruity over 12 stretched-out Avengers Forever issues. Writers like Grant Morrison, a prime example of British success, have faith in the readers and their abilities; the hard-core science and emotional complexity he gives to the characters like Superman and the Flash in JLA only elevates them. “Them” being both the icons and the audience.
Even with the Internet, long-distance telecommunication, and the age of the global village, there are still significant regional differences to be appreciated. The British, while “Westerners” and English speakers like Uncle Sam, do not come from our cities and towns. They are of another culture, another world. A world that nurtures the creativity they choose to channel into comics, American “funnybooks.” It’s a world whose sensibility and style the wide wings of our botched bald eagle should embrace.
For more on the British “recolonization” and the insight into American comics multicultural future, continue on to the exclusive PopMatters interview with comic writer Jamie Delano.