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The Official Bryan Talbot fanpage / The Adventures of Luther Arkwright homepage

The Arkwright Thesis: Introduction:
What is a comic?


Note: the Luther Arkwright Thesis is written and copyright by Robert Cave: I helped Robert to get in touch with Bryan for his research, and in return asked if I could put his thesis on the site: Robert agreed, and here is the excellent result.

The thesis consists of an Introduction, and Chapter One, part one and part two, then Chapter Two, part one and part two, and finally the conclusion. If you've liked this page, then also see the true history of the Arkwright Multiverse page, and also the reality behind Arkwright's arch enemies, the Disruptors.

What is a comic? In this country the word comics seems inextricably linked with the juvenile humour of The Beano (1938-present) and The Dandy (1937-present) or the American super hero comics of Batman (1939-present) and Superman (1938-present) an exclusively male preserve. To an extent these examples are often considered to define the medium, but as Scott McCloud observes in his book Understanding Comics (1993), "people failed to understand comics... because they defined what comics could be too narrowly."

The problematic notion of what is a comic, is compounded not only by the various words used by comic writers themselves but the varying emphasis they and subsequent critics, of which there have been few, place on its definition. Martin Barker, in his book Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics even resorts to the tautology of defining thus "a comic is what has been produced under the definition of comics." However, this would discount many contemporary comics that are desperately trying to redefine themselves away from the word comic, in an attempt to shed the inaccurate and sometimes derogatory connotations of the word.

Thus I have decided that instead of entering a semantic game that is both reductive and isolatory in terms of what each word excludes, I would rather outline a brief history of comics that might suggest not only definition but also some of the traditions and recurring motifs that are associated with it, so that the one underlying concept might be unified under one more precise term.

One school of thought, one that is propounded by two of comic's major structural critics, claims that comics have the same genesis point as language, in cave paintings and hieroglyphics, emphasising the notion of artwork in a sequence over such differing notions of comics as a combination of artwork and standard text, or mechanical reproduction for mass consumption. This notion places comics alongside language in the beginning of a process of semiotics, where the signifiers bear a resemblance to what they signify, and this resemblance is perhaps is the problem. Cave paintings lack the addition of standard text. Just how necessary text is to the comic form is again debatable. However, I would liken the lack of text to the lack of composite letters, from which the pictoral words are composed, in the same cave paintings. The cave painting is not a comic in the same way the cave painting is not a language. It is best described as a pictoral narrative, or, for our purposes, pre-comics.

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Yet whichever group we choose to follow, whether we see cave paintings and the like as pre-comics or non-comics, we must still recognise that the comic form with which we are familiar, began with mass production, the relative merits of which we shall return to later. Roger Sabin in his Comics, Comix, and Graphic Novels (1995) identifies comics as coming from the quasi -journalistic background of one sheet woodcuts sold at public executions to describe the probable gore to those who could not quite see it, reinforcing the idea of punishment as spectacle as postulated by Michel Foucault in Discipline and Punish (1975). These woodencuts set the tone for the nature of comics for over a century, with the cheapest materials available being used to keep costs down so that the poor and poorly educated could still enjoy them. From this point, growing with the invention in the 1820s of lithography and the printing press and various other mechanical means of reproduction, the method existed for publishers and artists to unite the country in a way not previously possible, and while it would be a mistake to suggest that a nationally available press began at this point, it would certainly be fair to suggest, as Sabin does in his work, that this invention began the process of allowing both the ruling and labouring classes access to the same information objects.

In 1731 the artist William Hogarth, a possible missing link between the aforementioned two visions of comics, translated A Harlot's Progress (1731) from painting to print. Both versions told a story in text and art, although at this point the two were not fully integrated. By this time we can truly speak of Britain as having a satire industry; although it was still to a large extent the domain of the elite, the various Education Acts were also beginning to have their effect, creating a new information age. The satire industry continued, possibly with its greatest success, with the publication of a primarily text-based magazine, Punch (1841). It was "intended to raise a laugh and that it would be out spoken and irreverent in attacking the usual butts of radicals." Aside from its importance as a barometer of public mood of the times, Punch also popularised the form of the political cartoon.

These kinds of cartoons are certainly where much of the notion of comics as a humorous medium derive. However, Sabin also suggests two other tributaries to the comic stream: the drawings that appeared alongside news stories in such publications as The Illustrated London News (1842) and the popular fiction of the 'penny dreadful' which were, as comics would later be, popular with the masses yet denigrated by the bourgeoisie as violent and base in comparison other more traditional art forms.

It was at this point that the publisher of one of Punch's rivals, Judy (1867), gave one of its characters, Ally Sloper, his own title that brought all of the various qualities of the humorous/satiric strips, and the popular fiction of the working class magazines and newspaper illustrations together. Ally Sloper's Half Holiday (1884-1923) is generally recognised as the first comic. Significantly, it was not aimed at a gendered market as many later comics would be, and its success lead to various imitations. Desperation to undercut Ally Sloper in price lead to poor production values of a kind that have become endemic if not definitive of comics ever since. Despite the lack of respectability, possibly the result in these titles targeting of the lower classes, publishers were keen to put out new material, and noticed these comics were especially popular in the children's market which they rapidly adapted to. Eventually, publisers abandoned more adult themes entirely to descend into slap stick.

American comics descend from a different tradition of repackaging newspaper strips into a single volume, only creating a publication of original material in 1933. However the comics industry there really caught the public imagination with the creation of Superman and Batman just before the Second World War. These two figures also had an amazing influence upon the whole comics medium to the extent that even today the super-hero sub-genre they represent is the comics mainstream.

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From that point on, comics underwent periodic eras of highs, such as the patriotic "Golden Age" of comics when they became jingoistic mixture of patriotism and entertainment, enjoying again a diverse readership, and lows such as the anti comics hysteria of the '50s, spearheaded by eminent psychologist Fredric Wertham in his infamous book Seduction of The Innocent (1954). The book itself was an attempt to link comic books to juvenile delinquency, and in doing so tapped into on of the greatest zeitgeists of '50s America, extreme political Puritanism. Yet it lead to the setting up of McCarthyesque Senate hearings and eventually the Comics Code Authority, in October of that year.

Like the B.B.F.C., the C.C.A. set up a draconian set of rules governing what was permissible in comics. The code itself, still used by the two main American comics publishers to this day, has a strong ideological slant, and demands, in general Standards A, Clause 6, that "in every instance good shall triumph over evil and the criminal shall be punished for his misdeeds." The pro-establishment ideological bias of the code, enshrined in it's discouragement of the portrayel of police being killed by criminals, has been interpreted by some critics (most notably Roger Sabin and Martin Barker) as the real reason behind the anti-comics rhetoric. Many of the comics, such as "Shock Suspenstories (1954), a title remarkable for the fact that it contained very little overt violence at all," were most harshly criticised in the Senate hearings, and restricted by the code, were not so much violent as subversive of the very family values that underpinned the status quo. However, that is debatable as neither Wertham nor the Senate Subcommittee advocated outright censorship. The comics industry created the code as a rod for its own back.

The immediate and longer term effects that the code had are still a matter of some debate. While the code did eliminate many ideas from expression, it also forced writers and artists to be more inventive, and as whole genres, such as horror and crime comics were problematized, with the new tight guidelines on the portrayal of crime in comics under the code, and the prohibition of words such as terror or horror. This virtual censorship lead to an increased publishing interest into non-contentious genres such as T.V. tie-ins and romance and Western comics. Its immediate impact upon Britain is equally hard to gauge. While it is true that the controversy was converted into law here, with the government "ban[ning] the importation of and publication of crime and horror comics under The Children and Young Persons Harmful Publication Act," it did not affect the domestic market, and one of Britain's most successful comics ever The Eagle (1950-1969) or its sister title Girl (1951-64). The lack of effect this legislation had on The Eagle is principally because it was created as a result of similar fears to those that had brought about the British legislation. Rather than simply howling for censorship, the vicar Marcus Morris took a rather different tack, stating that "I shall not feel I have done my duty as a parson and as a father of children until I have seen on the market a genuinely popular children's comic where adventure is once more clean and exciting." The Eagle's high production values and imaginative input by Frank Hampson led to the creation of the Christian hero Dan Dare whose adventures could often be read within the strong subtext of the Muscular Christianity engendered by the British Empire in the Victorian era. The Eagle was immensely successful, again leading to a flurry of imitators and innovators. Other genres to emerge at this time included football comics such as Roy of the Rovers (1976-1996) and war strips which were a staple in The Eagle's rivals, and later got their own comics, fighting and re-fighting the Second World War continuously.

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Again, a further innovation occurred in America and soon transplanted itself to this country, with the rise of an alternative or sub-culture that reacted against the tight and oppressive regime of '50s America. The firm grip establishment held over the medium left many feeling disenfranchised, and among them was the artist Robert Crumb, who, together with some like-minded friends, created their own comics and sold them through head shops. Zap Comix (1967-1975) was important not only because it set up the underground comics genre synonymous as it was and is with its often explicit and satiric content, but also because it subverted comics traditional newsagent distribution system. It also led to new kinds of comics being published, such as a wide variety of "cause" comics. These comics brought many subjects that were suppressed in traditional media into public discussion. Zap Comix was also the birth point of the independent comics genre.

Britain had its share of undergrounds too. Mainly these were born out of, and funded by, the hippy newspapers and magazines The International Times (1967-?) and Oz (1968-?). However, there were exceptions to this, one of the most notable being Bryan Talbot's Brainstorm Comics (1975-77). This title featured many themes that would later re-appear in Arkwright.

By 1969, American comics were once again receiving news stand distribution in this country, which only fed the interest of many of the readers of the underground and mainstream comics alike. Comics were rapidly becoming a melting pot, both of ideas and of popular culture, something bourne out by the two most important comics to launch in the seventies Action (1976-77), which featured many strips that could be accused of cashing in on the latest film crazes, and 2000AD (1977-present) a landmark title that has been a breeding ground for British talent for the past 21 years.

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The range of comics available at the end of the '70s created a considerable fan base, so the time was right for the setting up of the first comics speciality shops. These shops meant that at last there was a means through which publishers could reach their readership directly, expanding in the early 80's, with the setting up direct market distribution. Selling comics directly to the comic shops cut out much of the risk for the publishers as, unlike the newsagents, the comic shops did not have the benefit of sale or return policies. However, at least this meant that finally readers and collectors alike could find both new issues more easily and older issues they had been unable to obtain previously. The relative merits of direct distribution still are hotly debated to this day.

From this brief history, we can see that the very notion of what comics are is continually changing, almost so fast as to defy definition, especially in the restrictive sense so often applied to them by the general public. But this summary also gives us some of the general trends that comics follow, namely a sequential mix of art and text which is mass-produced and includes an increasingly wide variety of genre. Yet perhaps the best definition of what comics were, are, and will be is to be found in Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics Where he takes Eisner's definition of comics as 'sequential art' and looks not only at what it says, but in what it does not say, leaving the medium of comics free for future creators and readers to explore and redefine just as those of the past have. Comics have, can, and will be a lot of things, and my dissertation looks at one of them, just one tale of the many waiting to be explored.

Bryan and myself have just completed the Second Edition of the Heart of Empire Directors Cut which contains the whole of the Adventures of Luther Arkwright in normal resolution and also in very high resolution; you can buy it right now from our online shop at Cafe Press. Alternatively you can buy the The Adventures of Luther Arkwright in traditional printed graphic novel format from Amazon.

Also, the Adventures of Luther Arkwright is now available to
read as a webcomic from this very website


The design and content of this page and this entire website is copyright 1999, 2006 by James Robertson: all images are copyright 1999, 2006 by Bryan Talbot