This gallery is a mixture of representative images and little-known texts from the history of the British graphic novel. It provides a snapshot of the many different creators, texts, and genres that constitute this vital cultural form. The graphic novel has enjoyed two boom periods – the late 1980s and the start of the 2000s – but exciting new work is coming out every year and the tradition of the British graphic novel is much older than commonly assumed.
Comics are studied more than ever in the world’s universities and in very different disciplines; art history, design, literary studies, legal studies, sociology, psychology, and classics all offer a home to comics scholars. The variety of graphic novels you can find in a bookshop or library is staggering: comedy, romance, memoir, biography, history, political polemic, documentary, literary adaptations, science fiction, fantasy, horror, and war. This broad range of genres isn’t new and the below images highlight how British graphic novels have always taken different shapes and sizes. Some of the texts mentioned below weren’t called ‘graphic novels’ when they first appeared yet they are all long comics narratives published in book form.
When the concept of the ‘graphic novel’ was first mooted it was envisaged as a comic that would be bought and read by adults. That’s what Richard Kyle, a comics fan living in the United States, was thinking in 1964 when he coined the term ‘graphic novel.’ Over the course of the 1970s the phrase was taken up across North America by the people creating, editing, publishing, and selling comics.
When did the term ‘graphic novel’ cross the Atlantic? We can’t be sure but certainly no later than November 1977, when US publisher and writer Mike Friedrich used the term in an interview with British fan Mal Burns. From 1978 onwards the term appeared in UK comics fanzines such as Graphixus, BEM, and Masters of Infinity (‘fanzines’ are informally published periodicals written by fans and distributed to other fans).
Graphic novels were in vogue in the late 1980s following the publication of Watchmen (by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons) and other titles in 1986-87. Even though graphic novels were not new, the media hailed the novelty of the format and proclaimed that comics were now OK for adults to read. But the idea that graphic novels can only be for grown-ups is changing and in the twenty-first century many children’s graphic novels are being published.
This gallery provides a sample of the titles appearing in The Great British Graphic Novel, an exhibition running from 20 April to 24 July 2016 at the Cartoon Museum in London. The images below are not being shown in the exhibition but they demonstrate which graphic novels will be on display.
The Great British Graphic Novel is underpinned by research conducted by Dr Paul Williams at the University of Exeter. His project Reframing the Graphic Novel: Long-Form Adult Comic Narratives in North America and the UK c.1973-82 is shining a light on the production of graphic novels in the long 1970s and uncovering many forgotten works on both sides of the Atlantic. Between 1970 and 1982 at least fifty books that would now be called graphic novels were published, far in excess of the small number of titles usually mentioned in comics histories. You can read about those books on Paul’s blog.
Unknown writer and Marie Duval (artist), Ally Sloper: A Moral Lesson (1873). Ally Sloper was a highly popular character during the Victorian period, so popular that his appearances in the periodical Judy were collected together and republished in book form, starting with A Moral Lesson in 1873. Sloper was invented by Charles Ross; his wife Marie Duval drew most of the comics in this book. Despite – or because – he was constantly drunk, Sloper the conman was beloved by nineteenth-century readers and the character was used to sell a staggering range of commodities, from toys to cigars to relish to ties.
Mary M. Talbot, Kate Charlesworth, and Bryan Talbot, Sally Heathcote, Suffragette (Milwaukie, OR: Dark Horse Books, 2014). While the eponymous character in this graphic novel is fictional, the events and people around her have been reconstructed from the historical record of the suffrage movement. Dialogue and headlines have been faithfully recreated to show the sacrifice and struggle that accompanied the battle to win the vote for women. Sally Heathcote, Suffragette (c) 2014 Mary Talbot, Kate Charlesworth, and Bryan Talbot