Why are British Writers so Popular?

It is something that has always interested me as a British reader, and something I briefly touched on in my previous column; comics are a quintessentially American art form, so how come so many of the most successful and respected writers in the business are British? Consistently they are amongst the most creative and popular on both sides of the Atlantic. Alan Moore, Mark Millar, Warren Ellis, Grant Morrison, Peter Milligan being just a handful that instantly spring to mind.

Obviously we can never over look the creative breeding ground that is 2000AD that has given us most of the aforementioned names as well as Pat Mills, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Kevin O’Neil, Simon Bisley, Alan Grant, Brian Bolland, Bryan Tolbot, Dave Gibbons and many, many more. But there seems to be something beyond this.

Of course there’s Alan Moore, the arch-druid of comicdom. Without Watchmen and Swamp Thing I don’t think many of us would still be interested in comics. He really helped open the doors to what was possible in the medium, that serious writing and superheroes can go hand in hand. Fair enough his output of late hasn’t been earth shattering but it’s still solid (Tom Strong is a great 50s pastiche and riotous fun as a read, and of course The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen was sheer quality).

Warren Ellis is another incredibly successful mainstream writer, but perhaps his most successful title has to be Transmetropolitan, a scathing attack on politics and modern culture, the excesses of our society and the power of the media. Spider Jerusalem must be one of the most acerbic creations DC have ever printed.

Peter Milligan has written all over the place through the years, perhaps most notably Shade the Changing Man at DC/Vertigo and more recently X-Statix. He’s also a jobbing writer that can be seen all over the DC and Marvel universe (currently on X-Men of course). There are two sides to Milligan, and we’ll concentrate on the out-there freak outs he does so well (eg the aforementioned Shade and X-Statix). There’s a grasp of absurdity, a dash of Monty Python surrealism, but this skewed humour is underpinned by a dark core. X-Statix had probably the highest mortality rate of any mainstream comic and was a cutting indictment on celebrity culture. And I think over in Britain we were probably even more disappointed that the much reported Princess Diana story was pulled and cobbled together into a rather inconsequential, hastily re-written story about a dead pop star (who was transparently Di but without the impact using her image would have had). British readers who were on the same wave-length as Milligan would have loved the story especially as we’d been exposed to her on an almost daily basis through her romance with Prince Charles to her death and funeral.

Mark Millar went down a more mainstream filmic route but, in terms of sales figures, one of the most successful writers out there. His Ultimate X-Men was a massive smash, and deservedly so. His run on Ultimate X-Men made the series instantly accessible, losing all those years of cumbersome baggage. He saw what really needed to be done and just hacked to the core of the story. It wasn’t perfect but had far more ups than downs. Magneto was perfectly written, his reappearance is issue 25 was one of my favourite super-villain moments in recent years. And in the end it turned out to be one of Marvel’s greatest moves in terms of sales figures.

But enough of these accomplishments (and there are so many; I’ve just picked some of the most obvious and recent examples) where does this unique take come from? It’s a question I ask most writers when interviewing them as it’s something that intrigues me. I was interviewing Grant Morrison just before the launch of Seven Soldiers and was interested in his views (another writer with some amazing titles behind him, Animal Man, The Invisibles, JLA etc etc). And he certainly had some interesting opinions on the subject: ‘Why did the Beatles reinvent rock ‘n’ roll when America had invented it? It’s just the same thing. Everyone who grew up here reading comics was galvanised by the stuff they read in the 60s or 70s, then kind of went away and went through punk and rave and lived their lives, whereas American comic creators seem to be classic geeks from a certain generation. So the way was just opened by Alan Moore, Pete Milligan and me to come in, we were like mushrooms growing in the dark over here and absorbing all this stuff, growing in an unfamiliar form. At the time sales were dying so they needed someone to invigorate it, and they found a bunch of British people who were obsessed with the stuff, but no more obsessed than they were with music, theatre, or films so they were bringing in a whole different vocabulary from other areas of the arts. Which set things alight again and made people buy comics again.’

In fact I have to thank these three guys (Milligan, Millar and Morrison) for reinvigorating my own love of comics in recent years; when they took over their respective X-titles in 2001, DC seemed to be floundering and this jaded comics fan was becoming less and less impressed by what I was reading. In fact it lead to my wholesale defection form DC to Marvel as the whole company, under Joe Quesada, seemed to be a bristling hot house of vibrant ideas (and perhaps uncoincidently UK talent).

Neil Gaiman is phenomenally popular and writes from an incredibly British perspective. Sandman was a surprise hit, who’d have thought the world of dreams, supernatural, Shakespeare, classical mythology and goths would become the highest selling title in its day. I happened to be interviewing Gaiman around the time American Gods came out (2001 and too be honest not a book I particularly liked) and asked him about his take on writing for an American audience. ‘Initially when I moved to America everything I wrote was based in England, I was fetishising it. Then I wrote American Gods, which was a way of saying there’s a huge world out there that Americans don’t talk about because they take it for granted.’

Of course there are many factors: the difference in our education system, our class system, politics and music but I think one of the main reasons is comics demand the hyper-real, an exaggeration of reality, how else can we write or read stories of super powered freaks, intergalactic terror and parallel worlds? Us Brits have a bizarre understanding of the US, a mix of fact and fiction, and to be honest more fiction than fact. We see far more movies than we do documentaries on American life. Our view of America is as informed by Friends, Six Feet Under and the Godfather as it is by reality, of course we understand these are fictional but we can’t help but absorb these stories into our conscious, and unconsciously we mix that fact and fiction and come up with an exaggerated whole. I think this is key to why British writers work so well in comics; we so easily blend fact and fiction to create an amplification of America, a parody that doesn’t even understand it’s a parody. We come from a different angle that leads to a fresh perspective, we take an American art form, chew it up and spit out our own unique adaptation, hence British writing is often surprising, startling and sharp. Our outside perspective may be just why we write our skewed little stories so well.

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