Comics Jam: Preserving British Comics

Yes, good pun, I didn’t notice it myself until the suggestion that the next follow up should be a Dundee-based one called Comics Marmalade. (Note to the unknowing – Dundee is famous for both marmalade and comics.)

On Saturday I went to the Cartoon Museum in London, to a small but perfectly formed event (follow link to Down The Tubes for fuller description). I feel very lucky to have gone: the numbers were limited due to the venue size, and I believe also the key person behind the gathering was keen to keep it sharp and focused. Many thanks indeed, therefore, to David Roach for suggesting me as an attendee and to Peter Hansen for finding a slot for me to join in. The event was called “Comics Jam” and the aim of it was to discuss ways to preserve UK Comics History (though the subtitle actually used was just the straightforward descriptive phrase, “British Comics History”).

The event started at the beginning of the afternoon: 2 pm, to allow everyone  time to get there from far-flung locations (Dundee, Bournemouth, Wales, and indeed Peter Hansen himself is primarily based in Vancouver, Canada). Peter gave a short introduction of how he came to become a collector (recounted in more detail in a video included in the Down The Tubes link above) and we also saw an amazing short video walking us through his collection. The collection consists of a very large number of old comics of course (Peter shudders at the number of rusty staples he has pulled out of comics over the years, to prevent them from deteriorating further). Perhaps not entirely surprisingly, it also includes a large amount of original art work – but I think no one would expect the sheer number of pages of physical artwork that he has collected, which certainly numbers in the tens of thousands, stored in folders and on pallets.

Amazingly though, the collection also includes even rarer material. Tin plate adverts hung up outside newsagents, and a very few surviving paper adverts; leaflets and other promotional items including free gifts; dummies of comics never launched: all of great interest in giving a context to the business of publishing comics, of course. Best of all, the real holy grail for those of us who want to credit the creators behind it all: editorial correspondence, editorial bound copies of comics with annotations, and even pay books with information about who created what, and how much they were paid.

I hope the video, or a similar one, can be released at some time for wider appreciation. There is nothing quite like the impact it makes on the viewer as we watch Peter walking us through a simple door into a Tardis of comics ephemera: down corridors, along shelves, across pallets, peering into and out of art folders and banana boxes, and thence around many corners, up various stairs, and finally into a calm area where he catalogues his material. I was relieved to know that there is an electronic catalogue of the archive in spreadsheet format and that it’s not purely hard-copy, but it surely can’t be a complete work at this point as it consists of just Peter’s own labours rather than a joint effort or one done by someone brought in to complete this mammoth task. (Given that the event was co-organized by a number of academic bodies, perhaps this will change and a PhD student might end up with this task, or some part of it? Or Peter, please do correct me if I am wrong in my assumption about the completeness of it!)

Once we’d recovered from gawping at the Aladdin’s cave on the video, we had two discussion panels: the first was the one I was on (“The Story of British Comics: a round table discussion on the history of British comics, featuring Julia Round, Chris Murray, Jenni Scott, John Freeman, and David Roach, chaired by Phillip Vaughan“) and the second ranged from further historical discussions to information about what Rebellion and others are doing right now that will help to preserve this important part of cultural history. (“Celebrating and Preserving British Comics: a round table discussion on comics archives and preserving collections for the nation – featuring Peter Hansen, David Huxley, Rob Power, and Hannah Berry, chaired by Steve Holland”). Finally, we had a short trio of celebrities talking about their youthful memories of comics: Dave Gibbons and his youth as a comics reader and of course comics creator, Posy Simmonds on her early years reading both British and American comics (courtesy of a nearby USAF base) and Jonathan Ross talking eloquently on the rich texture of cultural history that a collection like Peter’s can hold for ordinary punters and for the research community alike (drawing on his experience as a governor for the BFI there).

Without going into detail of who said what and when (I didn’t take any notes for myself), I remember the discussion covering the below areas and more.

  • None of us present needed convincing of this ourselves, but as we stated and re-stated, these are important cultural and artistic artifacts for a number of reasons. They are elements of a shared history that has shaped the readership and affected the nation, while they also reflect back to us the concerns and interests of the nation at that time; but they are also amazing creations of a high artistic standard, denigrated and overlooked at the time and since then. This is evidenced by the lack of printed credits throughout most of the time that British comics were published, but also by people’s attitudes to it and the lack of attention paid to the area since the comics stopped being published. The publishers were hugely cavalier about the original artwork (though to be fair, it constitutes a real physical challenge for archiving and storage if you are going to do it properly!), and the creators themselves downplayed what they put out, typically not thinking of it as art.
  • As a result, the history and the artifacts from that time weren’t carefully preserved, and the knowledge of what it was made up of was being lost even when the main movers were still alive, let alone now, when more and more of those primary sources have died. We have lost and are losing memories  and information as well as artifacts – who did what, but also how they did it, what it meant to the readers, what unrecorded processes might have happened as a part of the overall business of publishing. (That’s some of the meat and drink of the interviews on this blog of course: hearing that in-house people wrote stories as well as freelance writers, that in-house art editors shaped a lot of the look and feel of the resulting page.)
  • The knowledge or the information that is out there is very scattered and certainly isn’t brought together in any central way: the indexes and the archives that do exist need to be searchable, discoverable, queryable in ways that allow us to ask questions and perhaps get unexpected answers about the kinds of stories included in girls comics, or the numbers of women involved in girls comics as compared to boys comics, or any other similar question of interest that could be posed. At the most basic level, never mind those research questions: how about being able to refer to a complete bibliography of a high-quality but over-looked comics artist, or to be able to produce a complete list of all the stories written in a certain title?
  • The range of things we need to do is of course overwhelming, and one question I asked was about what will we do, how can anyone choose a priority to stick to (or does each person choose their own priority, maybe). Some voices were asking about digital formats and the archiving of that material – a physical lump of Bristol board is quite hard-wearing and withstands quite a lot of mistreatment, and concept sketches also can last well, whereas current creators probably don’t even keep their ‘draft’ digital files that show the processes they used in order to get to the final output. (And even if they did, would the storage media and the machines to run them on exist a few years later?)
  • We can’t do it all, though clearly different people will have different interests and aims – so what might or will we actually do, and what might happen first?
    • Rebellion are slowly going through their acquired archives to make use of it, seeing it as the valuable resource that it is; but the size of the challenge in front of them means they can only go relatively slowly if they are to do it right. Currently they are recruiting an archivist and sorting out things so that it will become somewhere that researchers and others can visit, but it isn’t at that stage yet. Peter Hansen also confirmed that there are discussions around Rebellion acquiring whatever IPC original artwork that he currently holds, because of course that would considerably reduce the work to be done by the Rebellion reprographics department, but that is still to come.
    • There is a consortium of interested parties working together to acquire Peter’s collection for the nation, but it would need substantial funding not only to acquire the material itself but also to make good use of it (storing it, recording it in some way, and making it available to the wider public and to researchers). Having said that, it’s not that this is all cost and no benefit – the recent Seven Stories touring comics exhibition, “Comics! Explore and Create Comic Art“, featuring art from Peter’s collection, has helped generate some £60,000 in income so far and over three years is expected to comfortably exceed that figure.
    • There were some digital archivists in the room so there is some interest in building up expertise in that area, but it is at a very early stage as yet.

Even what feels in comparison to be much smaller efforts, such as this blog, are part of the collective gathering of information and valuing of what was created – we are helping to show creators and readers from the time that it is worth bringing together, that it is worth preserving what we can of this. Not just the visible product of the weekly comic itself, but the invisible processes that went into it; the thoughts, the memories of how it was made, and how it was received by the readers themselves. After all, the Girls Comics of Yesterday blog made a great joint leap of attribution only the other day, bringing in not only the name of a really prolific writer – Marion Turner, writing under the pen name Fiona Turner – but also a long-sought-after name of an artist, Don Walker, given by Marion Turner’s son Philip. (Though I say ‘long-sought-after’ – seemingly the information must have been held at DC Thomsons all along as they are attributed with supplying the information to Philip in the first place.) So please, please keep writing in, anyone with any connection to the British comics publishing world!

 

8 thoughts on “Comics Jam: Preserving British Comics

    1. Thanks Marckie! I hope there will be further good / interesting news following in due course later, relating to Peter Hansen’s amazing archive.

  1. Smashing round up of the day. If you want to see some pics of what Peter owns, then check out the article I posted earlier in the year, which also includes our video interview with him – https://downthetubes.net/?p=109362 … the downthetubes report on “Comics Jam” is here – and I’ve added a link to your feature above. Great to see you!

  2. Great read, it is good to see so much interest in preserving these comics these days. Like you say so much information and work has already been lost but better late than never!

    1. Yes, isn’t it great to see how many people are interested in this stuff. Some of it is people who have always been interested and yet not very visible to others, of course – in the days before the internet it was all letters and a very infrequent chance of meeting someone at a convention!

      1. Thanks for putting up a post about the event Jenni. But just to make a slight point Jenni which perhaps didn’t come through in my brief introduction at the beginning, of the event I would like your readers to know that my collection is in not slanted entirely towards boys comics. I have around 3000 pages of original girls comic artwork, as well as thousands of girls comics and annuals including Penny, Twinkle, Bunty, Judy, June, Girls Crystal, Schoolfriend, Tammy, Misty, Mandy, Tina, Princess Tina, Penelope, Jinty, Debbie, Diana, Girl and Sandie off the top of my head (probably missed a few), then through the teenage stuff like Mirrabelle, Vallentine, Romeo, Cherie, Jackie and a whole bunch of others. I sort of slid sideways into girls comics about 10 years ago because I realised the variety of stories were far more diversity than I had imagined. Lots of angst, schemes, cliques and far more mature better written stories unlike the boys comics with war, football, historical, space, detectives, ghouls, etc. I also have every girls number one comic from 1950 – 1975 and a few before and after that. I also have many girls free gifts, and membership memorabilia and a couple of letters from the editors to competition winners somewhere 🙂 I can now honestly say I am a true convert!

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