Book Review: The Ultimate Book of British Comics

British nostalgia site TV Cream has been a personal favourite of mine for years.  I’ve remained a fan because TV Cream has remained fairly consistent as a site.  The contributors are tastemakers, to be sure – TV Cream actually uses the term “The Wrong Kind of Nostalgia,” the site relying on comments of the “this is bag”/”this is ace” variety.  Still, TV Cream is not afraid to go obscure or esoteric, and that’s where TV Cream’s strengths have always been.

Parts of the site seem to have been spun off into books lately, TV Cream itself with a Virgin Books release and this article as The Ultimate Book of British Comics.  Written by TVC’s own Graham Kibble-White, the book acquits itself very well as an unofficial TVC tie-in.  While not perfect, The Ultimate Book of British Comics is a very good attempt at trying to sum up decades of British comic books.  It’s informative, entertaining and personal, and it touches on both the milestones and notable failures of the British comics scene.  Chris Claremont and Alan Moore, after all, had to launch their careers somewhere.

The Ultimate Book of British Comics isn’t an overly exhaustive look at British comics – by the author’s own admission, it’s targeting modern British comic books and not the story papers that they emerged from.  Old standbys like The Beano, Hotspur and The Dandy are included in The Ultimate Book of British Comics, but text-based papers are anathema to the book’s purpose.  The book also doesn’t list “adult” humour comics in the vein of Viz, mainly going after the more ambitious attempts at reaching the adult market.  Frankly, the exclusions make for a far more interesting book as ninety-eight comics are looked at in-depth and in a critical manner.

A lot can be learned from The Ultimate Book of British Comics.  Pat Mills of 2000 AD, Crisis and Toxic! fame got his start, for instance, involving himself in girls’ comics like Tammy, Jinty and Misty.  In fact, Mills comes across as being the latter-day British comics industry in and of himself, exploiting every niche he could.  Gory “boys’ comics” like the infamous Action, girls’ comics with more action and suffering, a comic book trying to shoehorn role-playing with Judge Dredd – all are given mention in The Ultimate Book of British Comics, enough that Mills’ name starts to become more repetitive with every comic he’s involved with.

It’s not all Pat Mills worship, though, as the main focus of The Ultimate Book of British Comics is on IPC Magazines’ and DC Thomson’s output.  Polystyle Publications and other companies also get a look-in, as does…well, Look-In.  A lot of the cornerstones of British comics, from Tank Girl and Judge Dredd to Dennis the Menace and Bananaman, are at least touched.  The Ultimate Book of British Comics is fun for reading about middling titles like the aforementioned RPG/2000 AD spinoff 2000 AD’s Diceman and Marvel UK’s non-reprint output like It’s Wicked!  Alan Grant, John Wagner, Dave Gibbons (a/k/a Tornado‘s “editor” Big E), Mark Millar and Neil Gaiman came from the British comics industry, and North Americans unfamiliar with the origins of such comics names would do well to read this book.  There’s a rich font of information within The Ultimate Book of British Comics.  There are a few contradictions and typos that are normal for the first edition of a book, but Graham Kibble-White’s overview is by and large well-researched.  The Ultimate Book of British Comics is not impartial, ohhh no, but Kibble-White knows how to keep his readers interested.

If there’s a sad note to The Ultimate Book of British Comics, it’s that there’s little of a British comic book industry these days.  Most comics either died or merged with other publications, as is the style in Britain.  Of the ninety-eight comic books listed in this book, only 2000 AD, The Beano, Commando, The Dandy and Judge Dredd Megazine continue to exist.  Doctor Who Weekly became Doctor Who Magazine, more a monthly paean to the world’s most famous Time Lord as opposed to being an actual comic.  Some comics didn’t even manage a year in print, while some shouldn’t have.  IPC Magazines’ successor Fleetway (itself now an Egmont UK company) sold 2000 AD and rights to its spinoffs to computer games concern Rebellion A/S in 1999.

As a Canadian who acknowledges how utterly weak the North American comics industry currently is, it’s easy to relate to Britain’s comics industry.  While comics aren’t dead, it’s sad to know that comic characters do better now through spinoff ventures than in the actual comic books they were spawned from.  Maybe that’s just as well – as much as DC Comics, Marvel, DC Thomson and Egmont keep their foot warm in the comics industry, that’s just not where the big money is anymore. The Ultimate Book of British Comics is as much a farewell to the British comics industry as it is a celebration of it.

I’m wondering why the hell The Bog Paper wasn’t included in the pages of The Ultimate Book of British Comics, by the way.  One of the few comics dealing exclusively in the field of feces and Graham Kibble-White neglects to talk about it?  The Bog Paper was a Marvel humour book, granted, so maybe I shouldn’t be surprised by its exclusion.  It’s not my nostalgia, after all.

Further Info
The Ultimate Book of British Comics
Allison & Busby, 2005
296 pages, 16 pages of illustrations

C. Archer
Le Social