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“What is it with these Brits?”: British culture and the “British Invasion” narrative seen through letter columns

“What is it with these Brits?”: les discours sur la culture et “l’invasion” britannique dans le courrier des lecteurs.
Isabelle Licari-Guillaume

Résumés

Cet article s’intéresse à la réception du phénomène de l’« Invasion britannique », qui a fait l’objet de nombreux débats parmi les spécialistes ; Jochen Ecke et Christophe Dony ont en effet conteté la validité de ce terme, montrant que l’arrivée de créateurs britanniques sur la scène mainstream états-unienne n’était ni une invasion, ni un phénomène strictement britannique, mais plutôt le résultat de circulations transatlantiques complexes. Malgré ces réserves, le terme conserve son utilité : en effet, l’idée que les scénaristes britanniques de cette période forment un groupe spécifique caractérisé par un style, des thématiques et un ancrage national particuliers est une affirmation récurrente dans les discours de fans. En particulier, le courrier des lecteurs montre bien l’importance de l’invasion britannique comme récit, dont la performance joue un rôle bien spécifique dans les sociabilités des lecteurs. Cet article examine une sélection de comic books états-uniens et britanniques : Camelot 3000, The Daredevils, Captain Britain monthly, Miracleman, Marshal Law, Hellblazer, Sandman, et Shade, the Changing Man. S’il faut se garder des généralisations abusives, l’analyse de ce corpus montre nettement que l’invasion britannique est construction discursive commune. Des deux côtés de l’Atlantique, les lecteurs s’intéressent à l’appartenance nationale et construisent une division nette entre culture états-unienne et culture britannique. Ils adoptent l’idée de « britannicité » pour faire référence à une esthétique particulière (et dont la définition formelle reste vague), mais également pour élaborer une performance nationale (via un accent ou un lexique spécifique) qui souligne leur appartenance à une communauté de lecteurs experts.

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Introduction: Of Brits and invasions

1This article deals with the reception of the phenomenon known as the “British Invasion” of comic books. The term itself was coined at some point in the early eighties; fans and industry professionals used it to refer to the arrival of many British creators on the American mainstream comics scene, from the early 1980s to the mid-1990s. It was named after the British Invasion of rock’n’roll that began in 1964 when the Beatles and several other bands took the US charts by storm, starting an industry-wide craze for British music and, more generally, for the aesthetics (fashion, hair styles, etc.) that came along with it.

  • 1 There were also British artists working for the American industry before the beginning of the Invas (...)

2Although several of the early Invaders were comics artists1 (notably Brian Bolland and Dave Gibbons), over time the term came to be associated more specifically with comic book writers. Indeed, many of the scriptwriters who followed in their tracks soon gained popular recognition, and are now considered to be among the most important comics creators of their generation: Alan Moore, but also Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, and Warren Ellis.

3Like many other fan terms, the phrase “British Invasion” was often used loosely and did not refer to one monolithic and well-defined concept, so that it can appear frustratingly inadequate from an academic standpoint. It has now become standard practice in academia to preface any discussion of the British Invasion by claiming that it never existed: Jochen Ecke, for example, provocatively begins his book-length study of the phenomenon by stating: “there is no such thing as the British Invasion of American comics” (ECKE, 2019, p. 1). This is correct only if we define the Invasion as a singular, unprecedented point of rupture from all existing models. As Ecke goes on to demonstrate, there was no such clear-cut rupture, and the comics of the British Invasion were in fact very similar, from a stylistic point of view, to the books produced in the British mainstream. Similarly, Christophe Dony, in his doctoral thesis (DONY, 2017, p. 166), perceptively argues that the British Invasion does not really possess the social characteristics of an artistic movement or school, which questions the very possibility of summarising the works of so many different authors under one broad umbrella term.

4I agree with both of these claims; in fact, not only was the British Invasion an artificial construct – it was also not really British, and not quite an invasion. Britishness as a national marker is problematic at best, and many UK citizens would object to it, preferring country-specific terms such as English, Scottish, etc. Furthermore, what was cast as an “invasion” was in fact the result of a deliberate strategy on the part of US publishers who headhunted UK writers, boasting attractive contracts, to capitalize on the hype associated with British creators like Moore. In terms of sales, too, the notion of an “invasion” remains an overstatement at best: despite their success, the British series never really outsold solid American titles.

  • 2 For the sake of conciseness, all letters will be identified by author name, publication title and i (...)

5Therein lies the paradox: even if there was no such thing as the British Invasion, a substantial number of comics readers in the 80s and 90s certainly believed that there was. Those readers participated in the creation of the Invasion narrative, first and foremost by using the term itself, but also by consistently paying attention to the country of origin of writers and artists, and by making judgements about “the Brits” (a prime example, of course, being the quotation I chose as the title of this article, which is from a letter by “John the Letterhack” in Marshal Law #6, to which I will return shortly2). In this regard, the British invasion definitely did happen; it shaped and was shaped by readers’ reception, and left a lasting mark in the comics industry, which adopted several of its traits (most notably an interest in genre narratives beyond the superheroic, a taste for provocative content, and the willingness to incorporate popular culture at large).

6In particular, readers used the “British Invasion” label, which is mentioned explicitly, for example, in Chris Romano’s 1988 letter to Hellblazer #7 (“The British Invasion is proving to be tremendously worthwhile”). It is also implicitly present in this letter which references the British Invasion of rock’n’roll:

  • 3 Morrison, being a Scotsman, is not technically Gaiman’s countryman – disregarding the fact that the (...)

The appearance of these two gentlemen [Gaiman and McKean], along with fellow countryman Grant Morrison3, has led me to believe that the British are out to show America the true creative potential of one of its native art forms, much like the Beatles did with rock and roll. (Sandman #10, Robert A Lugibihl, California)

7But the corpus yields a number of alternative labels, such as the “British Conquest” (used by British reader Malcolm Bourne in Hellblazer #13), or the “British difference” (mentioned by Scott Tilson, from Canada, in Captain Britain #10).

  • 4 One should bear in mind that this act of meaning-making is embedded within a much broader network o (...)

8The aim of the present article is thus to demonstrate how readers co-constructed the Invasion phenomenon on a discursive level4, by looking at one specific area of comics paratext: the letter column or lettercol. I will show that letter columns were one of the numerous places where the narrative of the “British Invasion” took shape, crystallizing around a set of creators, themes and practices. The Britishness ascribed to these creators was a way to showcase their otherness: indeed, their work was marked by a number of stylistic and narrative features, including references to, and rewritings of, literary and popular sources (ROUND, 2010; DONY, 2014b) mistrust of the idealism inherent in superhero figures (MURRAY, 2010, 41–43), and interest in contemporary political issues (LITTLE, 2010, 146–47) which set them apart from the rest of the American mainstream.

9I shall begin the analysis by discussing the methodological precautions that guided this study, and providing an overview of the functions letter columns serve within the fan community. Then, I will consider how fan mail contributed to the creation and consolidation of what I call the British Invasion narrative, a discourse in which UK writers are presented as having a number of particularities that formed an integral part of their collective identity. If, as Ecke writes, there is “no such thing as the British Invasion”, what does exist is a narrative and social construct whereby several writers were constructed as a consistent group. Finally, in the last section, I will examine how British national identity is imagined, foregrounded, performed, and often playfully questioned by readers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Methodological notes

Fan mail: a caveat

10The practice of printing letters from readers is hardly specific to comics; it was partly borrowed from science-fiction magazines, which attests to the close ties between the two fandoms. Henry Jenkins underlines the importance of letter columns in the construction of fandom and indeed of the SF genre itself:

Historically, science fiction fandom may be traced back to the letter columns of Hugo Gernsbeck’s Amazing Stories, which provided a public forum by which fans could communicate with each other and with the writers their reactions to published stories; critics suggest that it was the rich interplay of writers, editors, and fans which allowed science fiction to emerge as a distinctive literary genre in the 1930s and 1940s. (JENKINS, 1992, p. 46)

  • 5 I am using the past tense because, sadly, the halcyon days of the letter column are now past. Howev (...)
  • 6 Some even used it as a marriage bureau – Elfquest creators Wendy and Richard Pini met through their (...)

11In comics, too, the letter column was5 a place where you could interact with creators, meet fellow readers, and, in the words of Ian Gordon, “form rudimentary social networks by engaging in a discursive community of fans” (GORDON, 2012, 120), well before the advent of digital media that now structure fandoms. It played a specific role in the sociabilities of comics readers, allowing them to form and refine a discourse of expertise and knowledge. It featured compliment, discussion, speculation, ranting, and comments on the industry’s general predicament6. As such, it is a remarkably rich source of data, but by no means a statistically representative sample of the reception of any given title. We must bear in mind that the letters are only a selection of what came through the mail; furthermore, they could be redacted or amended to various degrees (assuming that they were not forged by the editors in the first place). In this regard, the letter column does not merely reflect the fans’ opinions; it is also an emanation of editorial discourse, and should be read as such. As Nicolas Labarre perceptively explains in his book Heavy Metal, l’Autre Métal Hurlant:

Fan mail must be treated with great methodological caution. Indeed, it is halfway between testimony and ad hoc construction. On the one hand, it provides a sample of authentic responses. On the other hand, the published letters have been selected: they can be used to provide a “spontaneous” platform to the editors, to represent debates whose real impact is impossible to appreciate […] or even to set up strategic editorial moves. (LABARRE, 2017, p. 100, my translation)

12These letters can, however, be used as a source to consider the attitudes and representations of a given community at a given time: this community includes a title’s dedicated readers (since it takes a certain level of involvement to write to a lettercol) and its editorial staff. Using a strictly qualitative approach, I will demonstrate that letter columns can be used to trace fans’ reactions to the books scripted by creators of the British Invasion. For the purpose of this article, I have established a relatively limited corpus of eight series published from the mid- to late 1980s, the period when the British Invasion narrative crystallised. A broader sample might be necessary in the future to confirm some of the findings of this article, but these eight series nonetheless yield important evidence of readers’ ability to construct and organise the narratives of comics history, by selecting certain traits which are ascribed additional meaning. In this instance, “Britishness” is an elusive trait that signifies more than national origin: it also encompasses a variety of stylistic features which are left undefined. It is used loosely by fans, who did not necessarily agree on its precise meaning. However, its recurrence throughout the corpus suggests that it was perceived as a meaningful aesthetic category.

Corpus

  • 7 Because the series is a very long one, standing at 300 issues total, I only considered Jamie Delano (...)

13The eight titles I examined for this study are, in chronological order: Camelot 3000 by Mike W. Barr and Brian Bolland (DC Comics, 1982-1985); The Daredevils, a comics anthology which featured Captain Britain by Alan Moore and Alan Davis (Marvel UK, 1983); Captain Britain monthly featuring the titular character by Jamie Delano and Alan Davis (Marvel UK, 1985-1986); the US reprints of Miracleman, begun in the UK under the title Marvelman, by Alan Moore and Garry Leach (Eclipse, 1985-1988); Marshal Law by Pat Mills and Kevin O’Neill (Epic, 1987-1988); Hellblazer, by Jamie Delano and various artists (DC/Vertigo, 1988-1991)7, Sandman, by Neil Gaiman and various artists (DC/Vertigo 1989-1996); Shade, the Changing Man, by Peter Milligan and various artists (DC/Vertigo 1990-1996).

14The corpus was meant to provide a sample of letters by British and US readers, sent to various publishers concerning the work of the early invaders mentioned in the list above. Before moving to the analysis, three points need to be clarified: first, the list does not include Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s magnum opus, Watchmen, because the series did not have a letter column (which might be significant per se, as we will see in a minute). Secondly, the first title in this list, Camelot 3000, was drawn by an Englishman but written by a US creator. However, because of the significance of the miniseries (which was one of the first at DC to be printed on superior Baxter paper (PLOWRIGHT, 1985, 28) and arguably pioneered the concept of the self-contained series with that publisher), and because of the crucial role played by Brian Bolland in the Invasion process, it seemed crucial to include it. Furthermore, Camelot 3000 is also interesting in the sense that its subject matter is, in and of itself, a product of Anglophilia – it is based on Arthurian lore, as was Captain Britain in the 70s.

  • 8 The North American comics market encompassed both Canada and the US: therefore, throughout this art (...)

15Finally, I also chose to include two titles published in Britain by Marvel UK, which was technically a British publisher (based in London) but retained obvious connections with the parent company, and was distributed in both countries (as confirmed by editor Ian Rimmer in Captain Britain #1, p. 3). These two series feature the work of early Invaders - respectively Moore and Delano. This helps frame the study in a clearly transatlantic context, as the letter columns of these two titles feature lengthy discussions about the relationship between Britain and the US, and include a substantial number of letters from American8 readers, attesting to the fact that many fans actively sought out British titles.

Preliminary findings: the letter column as a communal space

16The first question that can be asked about the corpus under study is whether these letters, on the whole, abide by the conventions of letter-writing at the time. As I shall demonstrate, they are in many ways typical of what could be found in letter columns across the industry: they organised social interactions whereby fans sought to distinguish themselves through their comics expertise. Most prominent among them were the letterhacks, those particularly prolific fans who wrote to several titles each month and were frequently published.

Letterhacks

  • 9 T. M. Maple’s real name was Jim Burke. He became a celebrity among comics fans because of his dedic (...)

17The corpus features letters from one of the most notorious letterhacks of all time, a Canadian writing under his pseudonym of T. M. Maple9, who operated regularly in the letter columns of both Captain Britain (#7, p. 35 and #24, p. 29) and Miracleman (#3, p. 24, #9, p. 17).

18The presence of letterhacks is not limited to North American fan communities: Sandman in particular had a handful of regular contributors who were published in virtually every single issue. One of them, Michael Bourne, from Manchester, also wrote to Marshal Law (#6), Hellblazer (#11), and Miracleman (#11), which attests to the level of involvement of such fans, and to the breadth of their knowledge regarding the international comics scene. Letterhacks are significant because they remind us that the opinions reflected in the letter column do in fact originate from a relatively small number of people, and certainly do not encompass all types of readers.

19In more general terms, the existence of letterhacks also emphasizes how letter columns worked towards producing a sense of belonging, of being recognized by peers. Some wear the badge with pride, like the individual who signed his letter “John the Letterhack” in Marshal Law #6. Some readers even phrased this feeling in terms of entering a fan élite – see Lon Wolf, who states: “I always felt that my first xeroxed advance copy of a comic would be my Knighthood into Royal Letterhackdom” (Shade #3). This points to the complex dynamics of hierarchy and distinction that exist among fan communities.

Social distinction

20In letter columns, fans do not merely voice opinions upon the art, the story, and the controversies that surround them. They also use this space to obtain and provide information about the book or the plot. It is frequent for readers to ask about a character, an author, etc. (for example, in Miracleman #11, p. 17, Robert A. Ogden asks about the discrepancy between the main character’s age and the appearance he should have). More pointedly, letters often display their author’s knowledge of the industry and their personal investment in fan practices. For example, in Sandman #5, Malcolm Bourne casually mentions that he has seen (or may own?) originals by Dave McKean (“as for Dave McKean’s amazing cover, all I can say is that his work of art looks even better in real life”), which was no mean feat given that McKean’s covers for Sandman were often based on 3-D installations by the artist.

  • 10 Miracleman was initially called Marvelman, but the name was abandoned for fear of legal action by M (...)

21Moreover, letters are a means of distinction (in the sociological sense) for readers who wish to showcase their expertise. In other words, letter writing is one aspect of the social practices of geek culture, where knowledge is one of “two main forms of specific cultural capital” (WOO, 2018) that allow one to assert one’s status within the subculture. In an early issue of Miracleman, For example, T. M. Maple boasts about his familiarity with the narrative and its initial context of publication (“Having read the original M****man10 stories”), while also discussing the business plan that accompanied the new version: “You set up a plan to bring the price of an independent down into the range of mainstream publications, and then what happens? The demand for the comic is so unpredictably high that copies are almost impossible to find” (T. M. Maple, Miracleman #3 p. 24). This serves to distinguish fan experts from the fray of comics readers who would have no access to such data.

22This sense of elitism might be, to an extent, increased or fabricated by editorial intervention. For instance, Eric Maigret, who analysed letter columns from 1960s and 1970s superhero titles, suggests that US editors tend to favour letters from committed readers. He analyses this as a deliberately elitist approach, which serves to flatter hardcore fans and give off a more “intellectual” image (MAIGRET, 1995, p. 95). The emphasis on intellectualism (in connection with respectability and cultural hierarchies) seems all the more convincing in the context of the 1980s comics industry, which was beginning to see the potential of the “coming of age” narrative, whereby comics were said to have “grown up” and become an “adult” medium (ROUND, 2010; PIZZINO, 2016).

23We also find a lot of inside jokes, which reinforce the sense of letter writing as a community-building practice. For example, Alan Moore is referred to as “the hairy one” (Lew Stringer, Daredevils #4 p. 13), which suggests familiarity with the author’s appearance, and as “the baboon” (Ross Cowin, Daredevils #6 p. 18), which is an allusion to one of Moore’s numerous pen names, Translucia Baboon. A Captain Britain reader quips “Make Mine Miracle, er... Marvel!” (Drew Fiven, Captain Britain #8, p. 26), which is a reference not only to “Make Mine Marvel”, the catchphrase that many Marvel readers used as a sign-off, but also to the situation that led to Alan Moore’s Marvelman series being reprinted in the US as Miracleman.

  • 11 In the same interview, Moore himself declares: “By the time we got around to issue #3, #4, and so o (...)

24I have shown that on the whole, the letter columns under study followed the conventions of the times. However, there are several exceptions: the most striking example in this regard would be Moore and Gibbons’s Watchmen, where the final pages were taken up by fictional paratextual material such as newspaper clippings, book excerpts, etc. Although these items were initially due to run only in the very first issues – which logically could not include fan mail – Moore eventually decided to generalise the process to all twelve issues (GAIMAN, 1987, p. 87). This decision, in and of itself, can be read as an attempt to break from comics conventions11 and complexify the narrative strategies at work, and is highly consistent with one of the most prominent elements of the Invasion narrative, which is that creators developed innovative and metatextual storytelling (ROUND, 2006; DONY, 2014a). Incidentally, the use of fictional material in lieu of fan mail can also be found in the early issues of Hellblazer, which feature a newspaper article about the hero, and an excerpt from his medical records.

Discussing and comparing reader experience

25As I have shown, discussing the acquisition and collection of comics is an integral part of the distinction strategies displayed by the readers. In this context, nationality is of crucial importance in the sense that local conditions, and the specificities of each national market, shape reader experience. The US publishers of mainstream comics did not have distribution deals in the UK, which means that British stores had to actively seek them out and import them. Thus, living in Britain could be synonymous with delays, difficulties to locate and buy monthly books, unexpected stock failures, etc. British and American readers did not have the same experience of these texts because they were not able to access them in the same ways, and these differences are expressed in the lettercol. Fans often used their letters to boast about the strategies they deployed to get a hold of their copies. For example, in Camelot 3000 #5, New Hampshire reader Ken McFarlane writes:

“I’ve liked Brian Bolland’s work since I first saw it on Green Lantern #127, and I’ve managed to collect Brian’s work on [British series] Judge Dredd thanks to Titan books.”

26Conversely, in Miracleman #9, a British reader, Nick Boulton, alludes to the publication history of the series, which began in the UK in the anthology Warrior, but was interrupted in the middle of a story arc which only reached completion in the States a couple of years later. He rages:

“Imagine, if you can, [...] having to wait TWO years [...] for the conclusion of this part of an absolutely stunning story!! Can you? No, of course you can’t, you’re Americans.” (Nick Boulton, Miracleman, #9 p. 17.)

27This example serves to show the importance of geographic origin and location as an integral part of fan experience. Because British readers were reminded that their own national culture and experience was different from the Americans’, they were bound to be sensitive to broader discussions of Britishness and Americanness. They then foregrounded the topic in their letters, broaching the subject for American readers and perhaps participating in the creation of Britishness as a specific category.

Mapping national differences

28In the second part of this article, I consider how national differences between Britain and America are represented and discussed by readers. One should bear in mind that all the titles in the corpus, regardless of their actual place of publication, had readers in several English-speaking countries, including the UK and the US, but also Canada. These readers often discussed the specificities of comics production in each country, and tended to depict them in rather monolithic, national terms. Broader debates on the contents of the books often touched upon the political situations of Britain and the UK, but readers also adopted a broader cultural approach, delineating what they perceived as deep-seated differences in the cultural traditions of each nation.

UK and US comics

29The lettercols of the British Invasion are home to an ongoing discussion about the differences between the two industries. Very often, they serve as a forum to air discontent about the American mainstream. Although absence of proof is no proof of absence, I have not come across letters which criticised British comics wholesale, while the opposite (along with a number of sweeping generalisations about “America” or “the Yanks”) was easy to find. The otherness of British writers and strips encouraged comparison, often to their advantage. Among British readers in particular, and in UK-based monthlies, this results in wholesale condemnation of the American superheroic production; Daredevils #4 is a case in point:

When you compare a regular American superhero comic such as Spiderman, Flash or Iron Man to Captain Britain and Marvelman, it makes you wonder just who writes that American rubbish. (Lew Stringer, UK, Daredevils #4)

The Yanks have a long way to go before they can honestly say they produce ‘adult comics’ because that’s what Captain Britain is - an adult comic strip. (Gavin Ross, UK, Daredevils #4, p. 12)

30Another letter from the same issue explicitly posits British readers as more sophisticated than their US counterparts, explaining that a comic that “caters for the British reader” must “combine intelligence and excitement” and provide “intellectual satisfaction” along with pleasure (Daredevils #4, Nigel Roberts, Doncaster). It is hard not to read this letter as having internalised a number of arguments typical of anti-Americanism – Markovits reminds us that this perspective often paints the US as enacting a “constant dumbing down of culture” (MARKOVITS, 2007, p. 30).

31This was also reflected in letters by Americans: “the fact that the best comics writers are Englishmen is not surprising; they were reading sophisticated comics all the time we were babbling with superheroes…” (Sandman #28, p. 25). However, it may be significant to note that the author is Canadian, not US-American, which might explain his willingness to criticize the dominant cultural production available in North America. Beaty and Woo concur with the stereotype of the intellectual British author and reader, writing:

“For American audiences, the U.K. is, above all, the land of culture and good taste, and there is, for instance, a long-standing tendency to see British popular culture as more sophisticated than its U.S. counterparts.” (BEATY, WOO, 2016, p.63-64).

32In particular, readers react strongly to the superhero genre, which largely embrace the discourse of what later became theorised as “revisionism” (KLOCK 2002), or, less problematically, as the “dark age” of superhero comics. Starting in the late 1980s, these superhero narratives emphasized “realism” (in particular, more realistic violence) and “cynicism”. These very terms are employed by letter writers. For example, in Captain Britain #11, a reader exclaims: “It makes a nice change to see a little of the cynicism of the present-day Britain reflected in a high profile, mainstream strip.” (Mart Gray, Cheshire). Similarly:

“In the American comics all heroes are brave, fearless, upright and proud, but here we have a man, hounded out of his own home, ridiculed and abducted. That’s what makes your strip different from all the others - realism. Thank you.” (Brian Lewis, Swindon, Marvelman #14: my italics here and in the previous quotation)

  • 12 The prominence of political and ideological discourse in superhero comics has been the focus of sev (...)

33Finally, these traits are, again, characterised as specifically British: it is the “cynicism of the present-day Britain” that is at stake. Purposefully or not, readers tend to ignore entire branches of US comics production (from Mad to the underground) and map national constructs over generic shifts. And in many instances, the superhero genre was used as a springboard to discuss ideology and politics12, which were once again framed in national terms.

British VS American politics

34In Marshal Law #6, a US reader writes: “Not only have you exposed the absurdity of the basic concept of the costumed superhero, but you are also making a poignant statement about contemporary America” (Steve Koen, Oklahoma, p. 30). The proximity between the superhero genre and “statements about contemporary America” (in this case, its consumerism and sexual hypocrisy) shows that the evolution of the superhero genre towards more grim and psychologically complex stories (called “revisionism” by Klock and others) is intertwined with a questioning of American mores and values.

35This is prompted by the rather explicit ideological positioning of the British comics under study, which tend to promote anti-authoritarian and equalitarian approaches. This is in part summarized by a letter in Shade, where New York reader Al Tucker writes

“I would like to see SHADE continue to explore things that very much jangle the nerves of ‘mainstream’ America, such as discriminations involving race, gender, or sexual orientation and interracial or same-sex relationships” (Shade #3, p. 25).

36My study did not reveal a clear gap between British and American readers’ profiles on this point. Although there are controversies on specific questions (for example, when one reader objects to what he sees as gratuitous provocation in Marshal Law), the overall feeling is one of a progressive, politically liberal audience, on both sides of the Atlantic.

37However, when it comes to how the readers perceive the comics they read, British comics (and their writers) are consistently presented as more outspoken than their US counterparts. Specifically, the letters express the feeling that foreign writers are in fact better armed to address the United States’ social ills. This opinion is conveyed in similar ways by British and American readers. Simply compare the following letters in Hellblazer from two different readers:

“I wish there were liberal Americans capable of making such strong political statements about our country’s leadership.” (Hellblazer #6, Charlie Harris, Arizona);

“It’s a pity more American writers don’t delve as deeply into problems over there. The best treatments of this kind have really been done by foreigner Alan Moore!” (Hellblazer #9, Malcolm Bourne, London).

38In both cases, readers seem to associate British writers with the ability to hold American culture at arms’ length and provide a political alternative to the generally right-wing, conservative outlook of 80’s America. This is, to an extent, an oversimplification, and we should be wary of a narrative that overlooks the American writers and artists who, like the British, questioned American hegemony and the superhero mythos. Nonetheless, the story that is told in the letter columns tends to obfuscate those American contributions.

Literature and cultural legitimacy

39One of the most frequently-invoked features of the early British Invasion is the importance of “literary influences” (MURRAY, 2010, p. 43). Because of the cultural legitimacy wielded by literature in general and by novels in particular, readers did remark on the literary nature of Invasion comics, as a way of praising their quality. Here is, for example, how one reader describes Shade, The Changing Man:

“finally, a comic book with the character, depth and imagination that is usually only found in a well-written novel” (Mark Sugiyama, Shade #4).

40More specifically, according to Beaty and Woo, Invasion texts were “comics works that were self-consciously ‘literary’ while working in popular and generic traditions” (BEATY, WOO, 2016, p. 53). Indeed, Moore, Gaiman and Morrison (like many Vertigo writers, see DONY, 2014a) all infused their narratives with literary references, but drew indiscriminately from the most high-brow (Thus Spake Zarathustra in Miracleman #1, or A Midsummer Night’s Dream in Sandman #19) to the most popular (by rewriting folk tales, pre-existing comics yarns, or alluding to genre novels and narratives).

41In other words, Invasion comics occupied an ambivalent position, both embracing and deriding high culture. This is something that some readers at least seem to emulate. For example, Andrew Harrison from Lancashire exclaims in Daredevils #9 p. 21:

Daredevils issue 7 is just the kind of thing to brighten up a day of turgid English Literature revision. Good strips and features for the non-lobotomized - hard to come by in most comics!”

42In other words, he derides classical literature as bombastic, while at the same time asserting the need for comics to appeal to the intellect. This might seem paradoxical, especially since Alan Moore (who scripted Captain Britain in Daredevils) does have an inclination towards wordiness. But from another point of view, it can be seen as the expression of Invasion comics’ in-betweenness (DONY, 2014b), which celebrate culture yet regard cultural hierarchies as highly suspect.

43Another common trait of British Invasion writers was a heavy investment in authorship (LICARI-GUILLAUME, 2017), and readers were indeed quick to build parallels between Invasion writers and a number of famous contemporary novelists – for example, in Hellblazer #21, Delano is likened to “Lovecraft, King, and Barker” (Michael S. Lucart p. 25). Interestingly, graphic comparisons between artists are much less frequent, which may suggest that the readers themselves were more comfortable analysing words than images, or may be a sign of a more global shift in the respective consideration awarded to writers and artists.

44I would like, however, to conclude this part with another quotation, which provides a somewhat convoluted analysis:

No one is ready to admit just yet that the likes of Alan Moore and Jamie Delano, writing in the comic book medium, could even be mentioned in the same breath with the great William Shakespeare. There is one striking similarity, though, among all three aforementioned writers – they’re all British. (Jim Chris, TX, Hellblazer #14)

45What is striking in the quote is how vague the reader’s point is: how does Britishness relate with literariness? Is this a way to acknowledge the global cultural weight of British literature? Does Jim Chris suggest the Brits possess some kind of natural literary talent? I would suggest that this uncertainty is part of the appeal of the “British Invasion” narrative; the literary talent of its writers seems to stem from their difference, and is best left undefined.

Constructing the meaning of Britishness

46In this final part, I look at the way Britishness is constructed in the letter pages, and how it takes on a specific meaning in the context of discussions between devoted comics readers.

Britishness as style

47Some of the discussion around Britishness seems partly prompted by editorial framing: for example, in Camelot 3000 #1, nationality is foregrounded as the series’ writer Mike W. Barr (who writes in the plural, presumably expressing also the feelings of Len Wein, the editor) examines the genesis of the series in what will become the letter column. He writes, in this piece from 1982:

Brian was the perfect choice! The only reason he wasn’t on the list was because he still lives in his native England, and none of us had thought to put him on the list. After all, it’s a long ways [sic] away… But Brian was called, and enthusiastically agreed to do the series. He even came over to the States last summer, and did a number of excellent sketches. (Camelot 3000 #1, p. 27)

48Of course, editors and artists soon found ways to conquer transatlantic communications. Yet the foregrounding of Britishness was also used at the end of the 80s by future Vertigo editor Karen Berger (who, as DC’s British Liaison, worked in close collaboration with many British creators): in Jamie Delano’s Hellblazer, for example, she pitches Sandman as “a mysterious DC character written by fellow British person Neil Gaiman” (Hellblazer #9, my italics). Again, it is up to the reader to determine why Gaiman’s nationality is significant in this context.

49As one leafs through the letter columns, it becomes more and more obvious that Britishness is not merely used as shorthand for a group of writers; crucially, it becomes a signifier for an array of thematic and stylistic features that are never explicitly defined. One example I found striking was from Ron Hearst’s letter to Shade, the Changing Man #3. He writes:

“Peter Milligan seems to be another addition to the British loony bin of comics writers that is already home to Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, et al.” (Hearst, my italics)

50Though we can infer that one of the qualities associated with Britishness is a certain unpredictability, associated with madness, this remains vague from a stylistic standpoint.

51More pointedly, for some readers the word “British” becomes an aesthetic consideration:

“The art is more atmospheric, more gloomy, and somehow more British when Ridgway is doing his own inking.” (Peter Floyd, Somerville, MA, Hellblazer #11 p. 26)

52This analytical framework is taken up not only by American readers, but also by Australian reader Paul Bennett, who praises the “British feel” of the series (Hellblazer #13 p.26) without trying to describe it. Yet Britishness does not lie merely in the themes at hand – it is clearly connected to a frustratingly elusive artistic style or aesthetics.

53This discourse is sometimes taken with a pinch of salt by readers who treat it humorously, but it is so prevalent as to still have an impact. For example, John the Letterhack asks in Marshal Law #6: “What is it with these Brits and their unfair monopoly on skill, style, and imagination? […] Is it innate? Is it the water over there?” Similarly, Al Tucker emphasizes the Wittgensteinian “family resemblance” between the authors of the Invasion in Sandman #14, asking: “What is it about Britain that makes all their writers the best thing in supernatural comics? Don’t tell me, Alan Moore, Jamie Delano, and Neil Gaiman are really brothers, right? Cousins? Schoolmates? Seedlings?”

54Finally, the most striking occurrence in the corpus might well be this suggestion by James Taylor from Middlesex in The Daredevils #7, who writes: “as a back-up story I suggest either Star Tigers or The Avengers done by Britain”. Here, there is no need to even name a British creator: the country itself becomes the source of a specific, although perpetually undefined, style.

Performance of Britishness as shared identity

55In many texts of the British Invasion, there is a clear performance of Britishness by the authors (by which I mean an overemphasis on certain themes, but also on accents, dialects and terms that are typical of British culture and language). This also features prominently in the paratexts; for example, the end of Hellblazer #2 includes a fictional interview by one Satchmo Hawkins, meant to take place in a stereotyped representation of London, “not far from Clapham Junction”, in a “public house” where “poor old sods” are having “beer and fags” (Hellblazer #2 p. 26). They were sometimes aided in this process by the editors, who were happy to foreground the performance of Britishness. For example, in her replies to fan mail in Miracleman, editor Cat Yronwode reproduces a long extract from Moore’s script for the previous issue:

We can’t see this here, because the bench is probably too far away, but for your future reference, slogans such as Arsenal are Wankers, girls’ names such as Debbie, Tracy, Jackie and Sue, sometimes linked by a numeral 4 to a boy’s name (Kevin, Troy, Sean, etc.) as in “Debbie4Kevin” and so on. There are also political slogans... a simple upright cross in a circle, sometimes with the letters BM or the words ‘British Movement’ near it: the almost ubiquitous National Front symbol, which is a joining of the netters N and F so that the two bars of the ‘F’ stick out from the second upright of the ‘N’, making one symbol that any brain-damaged Paki-basher suffering from a deprived education and cutbacks in the welfare state can draw with his eyes closed. The words “I.R.A.” and “Provos” also appear quite regularly. (Miracleman #11)

  • 13 Here I am using “culture” in the broad sense, to mean an entire way of life, as suggested by Dick H (...)

56This excerpt feeds into the British Invasion mythos in many different ways: first, like the previous passage, it makes ample use of British slang (“wankers”, etc.) and elements that refer to the political and popular culture of the country13 – by issue #11, Moore’s co-author was no longer UK artist Garry Leach, but US artist John Totleben, who might have needed more specific directions as to the political and social specificities of the UK. Secondly, it is a prime example of Alan Moore’s legendary prolixity when it comes to comics scripts – Neil Gaiman claims that “an Alan script for a twenty-four page comic will probably be about eighty pages long” (SALISBURY, 1999, p. 103) – and of his authorial stance as someone who seeks to retain control over the visuals. Finally, I find it enlightening that the only mention of “British” in this script is associated with the “British Movement”, a neo-Nazi organisation whose name casts British nationalism as a politically repulsive option, and by extension recalls the more problematic associations of Britishness at home.

  • 14 Fielder called the Beatles “Imaginary Americans” (CAROSSO, 2013, p. 134).

57The readers, too, sometimes take up what I have called the performance of Britishness. This is especially visible in Hellblazer, where the use of British slang functions as a community-building tool in the context of a series that uses it liberally. Thus a Texan reader writes “As Constantine would probably say, ‘speaks well for’em, dunnit?’” (Jim Chris, Hellblazer #14) – in other words, to adapt a phrase used by Leslie Fielder talking about the Beatles, this reader is an “imaginary Brit”14. But this emphasis on Britishness is by no means specific to Americans: a young Londoner exclaims in #11 :

“it’s good to see a comic set in London with the authentic idioms, settings, and types of London. [..] superheroes suck the big one, or as they say over here, they give me the pip” (Laurel Lyon, Hellblazer #11, my italics).

58One British reader even went so far as to send the following piece, presented as a conversation heard in “a gentlemen’s club” but obviously fictional:

“I say, Smithers, have you seen this?”
“What’s that, old bean?”
“The picture book. Ponsonby-Smythe left it.”
“No, can’t say I have. Any good, wot?” […]
“I say, if one should listen, that this “Camelot 3000” is dashed good reading. Considering it comes from America.”
“America? Oh, yes, I remember. One of the colonies, I believe.”
“Yes, well as I was saying, really spiffing yarn this Barr chap has penned. He’ll go far, mark my words.”
“If you say so, old bean.”
“I do. Mind you, the artist is one of our blokes, Brian Bolland.” (
Camelot 3000 #6, Dale Coe, Cheshire)

59Coe’s performance of Britishness is ironic, self-reflexive, and largely critical of certain aspects of British culture; it explicitly attacks Britain’s rigid class system (through the figure of the “gentleman”), cultural snobbery and imperial nostalgia (“one of the colonies, I believe”). These are central elements in Invasion comics, which feature working-class heroes, rebels against the established order, and a very ambivalent relationship with the US.

Conclusion

60This analysis focused on the letter columns of comics series by British creators, belonging either to what Ecke calls the “British New Wave” (ECKE, 2019, p. 2), i.e. the wave of new titles published in Britain in the early eighties, or the British Invasion itself, which unfolded on the US market from the mid-eighties onwards. My goal was to confront the established narrative of the British Invasion as formed by critics over the years with the contemporary reception of these titles, seen through the (admittedly restrictive) prism of fan correspondence. I have shown that the letter columns play a specific role in the sociabilities of comics readers, allowing them to refine a discourse of expertise and knowledge. In this discourse, considerations of national culture and specific national experiences play a large role. Readers frequently use national categories, establishing clear boundaries between the US and the UK in terms of comics industry, but also in terms of culture and politics. This in turn leads them to adopt Britishness as a way to refer to a certain aesthetics (largely left undefined), but also to perform its most obvious signifiers (accent, lexicon, etc.) as a way to emphasize their belonging to a readerly community, united by a common interest in certain writers, themes, and style.

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Bibliographie

Corpus

BARR, Mike W [w.] and BOLLAND, Brian [p., i.]. Camelot 3000 #1-12. New York: DC Comics, 1982-1985.

JAYE, Bernie [editor]. The Daredevils #1-11. London: Marvel comics, 1983.

RIMMER, Ian [editor]. Captain Britain #1-14. London: Marvel Comics, 1985-1986.

MOORE, Alan [w.], LEACH, Garry [p., i.], and TOTLEBEN, John [p., i.]. Miracleman #1-16. Forestville, California: Eclipse Comics, 1985-1988.

MOORE, Alan [w.] and GIBBONS, Dave [p., i]. Watchmen #1-12. New York: DC Comics, 1986-1987.

MILLS, Pat [w.] and O’NEILL, Kevin [p., i.]. Marshal Law #1-6. New York: Epic Comics, 1987-1989.

DELANO, Jamie [w.] et.al. Hellblazer #. New York: DC Comics, 1988-1991.

GAIMAN, Neil [w.] et. al.. Sandman #1-75. New York: DC Comics / Vertigo, 1989-1996.

MILLIGAN, Peter [w.] et. al, Shade, The Changing Man #1-70. New York: DC Comics / Vertigo, 1990-1996.

Works cited

CAROSSO, Andrea. “The Paradox of Re-Colonization: The British Invasion of American Music and the Birth of Modern Rock”. In : The Transatlantic Sixties: Europe and the United States in the Counterculture Decade. Bielefeld: Transcript Verlag, 2013.

DONY, Christophe. “The rewriting ethos of the Vertigo imprint: critical perspectives on memory-making and canon formation in the American comics field.” Comicalités [online]. 18 avril 2014 (2014a). [Accessed on September 20, 2020]. Available at: http://comicalites.revues.org/1918

DONY, Christophe. “Reassessing the Mainstream vs. Alternative/Independent Dichotomy or, the Double Awareness of the Vertigo Imprint”. In : La bande dessinée en dissidence alternative, indépendance, auto-édition = Comics in dissent: alternative, independence, self-publishing. Liège : Presses universitaires de Liège. ISBN 978-2-87562-038-5, 2014b.

DONY, Christophe. Vertigo’s Rewriting Ethos: The Poetics and Politics of a Comics Imprint. Ph.D. dissertation. Liège : Université de Liège, 2017.

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Notes

1 There were also British artists working for the American industry before the beginning of the Invasion proper, such as Barry Windsor-Smith, who drew Conan the Barbarian and other Marvel titles in the late 60s and early 70s. However, those remained exceptional cases.

2 For the sake of conciseness, all letters will be identified by author name, publication title and issue, and page number if present in the comic book. Readers can then refer to the bibliography to find the relevant data.

3 Morrison, being a Scotsman, is not technically Gaiman’s countryman – disregarding the fact that the UK state comprises four different countries might be symptomatic of the author’s American point of view, as is his assertion that comics is one of America’s “native art forms”.

4 One should bear in mind that this act of meaning-making is embedded within a much broader network of critical discourses, also involving editors, publishers, artists, journalists, and media coverage at large. The lettercols are but one aspect of the co-construction of the British Invasion narrative.

5 I am using the past tense because, sadly, the halcyon days of the letter column are now past. However, there are many examples of contemporary comic books finding new and innovative ways of re-creating the experience – one might think of Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s antics in the letter column of Sex Criminals, which was so successful with readers that it was eventually collected in a separate anthology entitled Just the Tips (2014).

6 Some even used it as a marriage bureau – Elfquest creators Wendy and Richard Pini met through their participation in the letter columns of the Silver Surfer.

7 Because the series is a very long one, standing at 300 issues total, I only considered Jamie Delano’s initial run.

8 The North American comics market encompassed both Canada and the US: therefore, throughout this article, “American” refers not only to US readers but also to Canadian fans, who are regular contributors to the letter columns under study. Conversely, Britain had its own publishers and distribution circuits – of which more later.

9 T. M. Maple’s real name was Jim Burke. He became a celebrity among comics fans because of his dedication to letter writing, and even has an award in his name.

10 Miracleman was initially called Marvelman, but the name was abandoned for fear of legal action by Marvel comics – hence the use of the asterisks here. For a detailed history of the events told from Alan Moore’s point of view, see his interview in the Comics Journal (GROTH, 1991).

11 In the same interview, Moore himself declares: “By the time we got around to issue #3, #4, and so on, we thought that the book looked nice without a letters page. It looked less like a comic book, so we stuck with it.” (GAIMAN, 1987, p. 87, my italics).

12 The prominence of political and ideological discourse in superhero comics has been the focus of several studies, notably Capitalist Superheroes: Caped Crusaders in the Neoliberal Age (D. Hassler-Forest), and War, Politics and Superheroes: Ethics and Propaganda in Comics and Film (Di Paolo).

13 Here I am using “culture” in the broad sense, to mean an entire way of life, as suggested by Dick Hebdige. Interestingly, Hebdige explicitly addresses the question of graffiti, suggesting that they are “an expression both of impotence and a kind of power” (HEBDIGE; 1979, p. 3).

14 Fielder called the Beatles “Imaginary Americans” (CAROSSO, 2013, p. 134).

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Référence électronique

Isabelle Licari-Guillaume, « “What is it with these Brits?”: British culture and the “British Invasion” narrative seen through letter columns », Comicalités [En ligne], Histoire et influence des pratiques bédéphiliques, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2021, consulté le 06 août 2021. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/comicalites/5585

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Auteur

Isabelle Licari-Guillaume

Ancienne élève de l’Ecole Normale supérieure de Lyon et maîtresse de conférences en civilisation britannique à l’Université Côte d’Azur (Nice), Isabelle Licari-Guillaume est spécialisée dans l’études des médias et de la culture populaire anglophone, notamment la bande dessinée. Elle est également traductrice. Son dernier ouvrage, Les Traducteurs de Bande dessinée, en co-direction avec Véronique Béghain, est paru en 2019 aux Presses Universitaires de Bordeaux.
Isabelle Licari-Guillaume is Associate Professor (Maître de Conférences) in British Civilisation at the Université Côte d’Azur, Nice, France. She specializes in the study of popular media and culture, with a focus on comics. Her PhD, which she defended in 2017, dealt with the cultural history of DC Comics’ Vertigo Imprint. Her latest book, Translators of Comics (with Véronique Béghain) was published in bilingual form in 2019.

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