Maybe it was something in the water—or something in the air—or just something floating around in the larger cultural zeitgeist of the time—but whatever the reason behind it all may have been, from the late stages of 1989 into the early stages of 1990, three young-at-the-time British comics authors, two of whom would go on to have a major impact on the industry “across the pond” while the other carved out a genuinely iconoclastic career for himself on the home front, all had a pretty similar idea: tell a short-from, serialized story about a late-teens/early-20s kid who was, in all likelihood, very much like themselves, or at least like a lot of people they probably knew, and plunge him into a series of events that were clearly beyond his depth.
Keep in mind, the “autobio” comics craze of the ‘90s exemplified by writer/artists like Chester Brown, Joe Matt, Seth, and others (Dan Clowes even got in on the act for a while) was still a good few years off, and when it hit , it was largely the domain of creators who had no interest in the comics mainstream, while this minor “semi-autobio” trend was the product of three writers who very much were of the British mainstream at the time, and who were making inroads (with varying levels of success) at mainstream American publishers, specifically DC.
So what was it that prompted Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, and John Smith to leave aside the capes-and-tights and give us a good, hard dose of reality (or at least an approximation of it) at almost exactly the same time? What characteristics do the protagonists of Morrison and Paul Grist’s St. Swithin’s Day, Ennis and Warren Pleece’s True Faith, and Smith and Sean Phllips’ Straitgate share, and in what ways are they different? What do their stories tell us about the state of British society at the time? What do they tell us about the state of British youth at the time? And how do these comics hold up today?
These are some of the questions—among others that are bound to come up along the way, I’m sure—that this series will attempt to tackle as we put each of them under our metaphorical microscope. I’ve recently re-read all three of them in the space of a week, and found myself struck just as much by their thematic similarities (which I’d expected) as I was by their tonal differences (which came as something of a surprise, as my admittedly-faulty memory placed them all together much more tightly than perhaps they deserved). The big surprise, though, came in rediscovering just how flat-out good all these strips were and are.
Oh, sure, the various creators involved may look back at these early efforts as being far from their best work—Ennis has said as much in the introduction he penned for Vertigo’s trade paperback collection of True Faith that came out in 1996—but by and large these are comics that any veteran creator would be damn proud to call their own, and the fact that the three writers involved here were all very young at the time (especially Ennis and Smith, who were 19 and 23, respectively, when their stories saw print) and still “finding their feet”—as well as their voice—makes their achievements here all the more impressive.
Crucially, each of them generated at least a small amount of controversy in the press—or, at least, the British tabloid press—as well, and that’s something we’ll explore as we go along here, as well. In the case of St. Swithin’s Day it could fairly well be expected, of course, given that the main character is out to assassinate Margaret Thatcher, and Morrison was rather fond of generating headlines for himself in his early “punk rock shaman” period, but the dust-ups surrounding True Faith and Straitgate seem positively quaint and anachronistic when looked back on from our 2015 (still feels weird typing that) vantage point, even though there’s absolutely nothing charming or cute about the eleventh-hour censorship to which both projects were subjected.
One word of caution/warning: I might have to get a bit “autobio” myself in my examinations of these comics, not because I expect you, dear reader, to give a shit about where I was at in life at the time, but because some brief explanation of where my interests were, as well as my own reaction to each of these works, will probably be in order when we come to the whole “so how do they stack up now?” bit. I’ll let you in on a little secret, though—every review of every piece of art ever created reveals as much about the reviewer as it does about the subject of his/her criticism, I’m just either too lazy or too honest (take your pick) to assume a detached, omniscient tone when I talk about this stuff. On the minus side, that means that my reviews are littered with a few too many personal pronouns, but on the plus side it means that I’m at least candid enough to admit the entire field of criticism is an entirely subjective one and that I don’t take it very personally—heck, we can still even be friends!—should you happen to (gasp!) disagree with me, since your views are every bit as valid as mine. I just happen to be the guy with enough free time on his hands to actually be writing, instead of just thinking, about the subject at hand.
On that note, then, we’ll be taking each of these in the order of their publication, and hopefully, if I’ve done my job, you’ll be motivated to either give these another go after a good many years, or to hunt ‘em down and read ‘em for the first time if you’ve never done so before. Don’t expect a rose-colored nostalgia trip here—not only because each of these comics has some flaws, but because many of the themes they touch on are actually rather timeless and don’t seem at all out of place in a modern context, even though they were, without question, a product of their time and of a UK comics “scene” that really doesn’t exist in this particular shape and form anymore—but do expect a hopefully lively and enlightening look at three “very much of a piece” comics serials that showed three different masters of the form finding their way in their chosen medium and reflecting the concerns, attitudes, and in many cases obsessions (healthy or otherwise) that many in their shoes shared, both then and now.