Comics Unmasked: The British invasion

Published 1 May 2014

As the British Library's new exhibition of UK comic books opens, we look at how an unlikely group of outsiders from Britain conquered one of America's most iconic art forms.

Think of comic books, and you're likely to think of superheroes. And if you think of a superhero, you're likely to think of one of the characters that appears between the pages of a Detective Comics publication. Dating back to 1939, Detective Comics is the archetypal American comic book publisher, with a roster of characters spearheaded by three superheroes collectively known as the 'World's Finest Trinity': Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman.

But in the late 1980s there was another trio that could lay claim to being the finest trinity in comic books: not superheroes, but an unlikely group of British writers with a taste for counterculture, anarchy and the occult. Between them they created some of the form's defining works – pushing the boundaries of what could be achieved in comic books, reaching new audiences and forcing critics to reassess the value of a medium they had previously dismissed. Enter Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman and Grant Morrison.

Moore was the eldest of the group. Born into a working-class family living in an impoverished area of Northampton with high levels of illiteracy, Alan Moore read comic books voraciously from a young age. While studying at Northampton Grammar School, Moore was one of a working-class minority in a predominantly middle-class establishment. He encountered a curriculum that he believed indoctrinated children with 'punctuality, obedience and the acceptance of monotony'. Not long after joining the school he was expelled for dealing LSD and began writing and illustrating his own comics, as well as producing strips for alternative magazines.

Future Shocks

The most successful of those magazines was 2000AD, a pulp science fiction publication developed by IPC Magazines (publishers of Country Life) to cash in on the impending release of a wave of science fiction films. Interested in writing for the magazine, Moore submitted a script featuring its most successful character, Judge Dredd. While his script was rejected, Moore was invited to pitch for 2000AD's Future Shocks series – a regular series of short stories with plot-twist endings that became a proving ground for emerging writers and artists. Moore would go on to write over 50 Future Shocks stories, becoming one of the magazine's most prolific contributors as he established himself as one of comics' leading lights.

While Moore was being kicked out of Northampton Grammar for peddling hallucinogens, Neil Gaiman was being blocked from joining a Church of England boys' school because of his father's religious affiliations. Gaiman was born into a Jewish family in Hampshire, but at the age of four his family moved to West Sussex to study Dianetics at the Scientology centre in East Grinstead – his father would eventually become a public relations official at the Church of Scientology. A budding journalist and a keen fan of fantasy and science fiction, Gaiman discovered one of Moore's comics while waiting for a train at London's Victoria Station. It was a pivotal moment in Gaiman's career. While he would continue working in journalism for several years – including publishing his first book, a biography of Duran Duran – he had four Future Shocks printed in 2000 AD between 1986 and 1987, and would soon be writing longer graphic novels.

Grant Morrison was already an old hand when he wrote his first Future Shock in 1986. His first story was published when he was only 17 in the Glasgow alternative comic Near Myths, and by 1987 he had his own continuing serial: the 2000AD series Zenith. His father was a World War II veteran but had renounced violence to become a pacifist and anti-nuclear campaigner – Morrison acknowledges his father's activism as the source of his anti-establishment views. From early in his career Morrison had set his sights on the major American comic book publishers, submitting proposals to Detective Comics (now simply known as DC). Morrison's early pitches were rejected, but it wouldn't be long before the British invasion of American comics was in full force.

Breaking America

The three writers had impressed DC executives with their early work and each was offered the opportunity to write for a minor character from the publisher's past. DC hired Moore in 1983 to work on the Saga of the Swamp Thing, a by-the-numbers monster series that had been recording poor sales figures. Gaiman was asked to revive The Sandman, an almost-forgotten character from the DC archives, while Morrison's proposal for Animal Man – a little-known character that had been retired decades earlier – was accepted.

All three series were hugely popular, earning both critical and commercial success. Despite significant differences between the writers' styles, it was their shared attributes that made them hits. Their stories were gritty and socially relevant, dealing with 'mature' issues while introducing new influences that shook up the medium. Morrison's style was aggressively postmodern, spanning topics from the nature of authorship to the unreality of contemporary capitalism. Gaiman's work was softer, filled with allusions to Classical myth and legend, with a literary style that bordered on poetry.

Yet it was Moore who created the greatest work of the British invasion – Watchmen. Set in an alternate history where superheroes helped the USA win the Vietnam War, Moore's masterpiece is a complex, novel-length work dealing with issues that had previously been out of bounds for comic books: a self-reflexive take on the golden age of superheroes in which death, war, social collapse and sexuality are ever-present issues and the psychology of vigilantism is interrogated. Time magazine named Watchmen was one of their 100 best English language novels published since 1923 – the only comic book to merit inclusion.

After the invasion

Of the three writers Morrison remained the most challenging, speaking widely on his belief in the occult and attracting criticism for his more extreme stories. St. Swithin's Day told the story of a planned assassination attempt on Margaret Thatcher, while the surrealist series The New Adventures of Hitler was unsurprisingly controversial. Yet despite this, Morrison was embraced by both major comic publishers and the British establishment. His writing credits include Batman, Superman and the X-Men, and he was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire in the 2012 Birthday Honours list for his services to film and literature.

They may have begun as a rag-tag group of writers from the margins of UK culture, but their work is now the mainstream of one of America's most popular forms of entertainment. And the recent surge in popularity of Hollywood comic book adaptations, as successful in the UK as in the USA, means that the three are now at the centre of a multi-billion pound industry. Film adaptations of Moore's work have included From Hell, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and – perhaps most influentially – V for Vendetta, whose iconic Guy Fawkes mask was adopted worldwide by the Occupy movement. After a seven-year run on The Sandman that made it one of the best-selling series of all time, Gaiman has found success as a screenwriter, novelist and children's author.

As for Morrison, he continues to claim that The Matrix was plagiarised from his series The Invisibles, going so far as to state that the creators passed copies of it to the production team for inspiration during filming. Written five years before the release of the Hollywood blockbuster, it tells the story of a group of freedom fighters trying to expose the fact that reality is an illusion perpetuated by non-human creatures to maintain control. Led by a bald, leather-clad hero in sunglasses, the group is confronted by adversaries in the form of government agents.

Morrison's reply when asked about the second and third films in the trilogy? 'They should have kept on stealing from me…'

Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK is at the British Library until 19 August. Save 50% on tickets with a National Art Pass.

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