PART ONE: EVERYTHING HAPPENS ALL AT ONCE
This begins, as all good comic books do, in medias res: we are plunged right into the action where our hero, one David Barnett, is hunched over his laptop, fuelled by coffee and deadlines, bashing out a story for the venerable British science-fiction weekly comic 2000 AD.
If you have even the slightest passing knowledge of the world of comics, you may have heard of Watchmen, the 1980s series by writer Alan Moore and artist Dave Gibbons, which was adapted into a movie in 2009 and a loosely remixed Netflix series sequel in 2019.
There is a sequence from the original comic that has been much memed on social media, which features one of the characters, Dr Manhattan, his internal monologue captured in captions. Dr Manhattan intones: “It’s 1945. I sit in a Brooklyn kitchen, fascinated by an arrangement of cogs on black velvet. I am sixteen years old.” And then: “It is 1985. I am on Mars. I am fifty-six years old. The photograph lies at my feet.”
One of Dr Manhattan’s unique abilities is that he can see time, not as a linear progression, but as a four-dimensional tapestry spread out all about him. Everything happens all at once. Which is sort of how I feel.
It is 2022. I am fifty-two years old. I am writing what will be my 14th story for 2000 AD.
It is 1977. I am seven years old. I am standing in a newsagent, buying the first issue of a brand new comic that has appeared on the shelves. That comic is 2000 AD.
Comics are inescapable in 2022. Who has not seen, or at least is not aware of, the Marvel Cinematic Universe and its array of brightly garbed characters, from Spider-Man to Ms Marvel, Captain America to She-Hulk? As I write this, The Sandman is a global Netflix hit. Streaming services are spewing out series based on comic books like a storm of cosmic rays: The Boys, Paper Girls, The Umbrella Academy, Heartstopper, Locke & Key. Who among us can say we’ve never seen a Batman movie?
And yet, this is television, and the movies. The source material, the actual comics … aren’t they a bit, you know, something of a lesser medium?
It is 1981. I am eleven years old. People are wondering when I am going to grow out of reading comics.
It is 2022. I am fifty-two years old. People are wondering when I am going to grow out of reading comics.
PART TWO: THE SECRET ORIGIN OF DAVID BARNETT
I was given my first comic on 11 January 1970. The day I was born. Like the young Kal-El being put into a space capsule by his parents to escape the destruction of his home planet Krypton; like Peter Parker being bitten by a radioactive spider; this was the day that my destiny was set in stone.
I’m not quite sure what possessed my paternal grandparents to buy me as a birth gift the 1970 hardback annual of the weekly Fantastic comic. Such things were a common Christmas gift in the 1970s and 1980s, on sale in November and December and dated the following year, presumably to give them some shelf life. By the Boxing Day sales, they were always vastly reduced in price. Perhaps that was a factor; perhaps it was a spontaneous, emergency purchase on the day I was born, a comic book full of gods and heroes, a suitable present for a boy.
However it came about, I grew up with that book. I learnt to read from it; in fact, I had my parents read it to me before I could do it myself, tracing the words with my fingers, reprimanding them if they missed out a single AARRGGHH! or POW! sound effect.
Fantastic was one of a number of titles that repackaged the colour American Marvel comics for a British market, reprinting them in often shoddily chopped five- or six-page episodes, half a dozen or so different stories in each weekly issue.
This annual had full stories featuring the X-Men, Dr Doom, Thor, Iron Man. These became my mythology, my folklore, my pantheon of heroes and gods and monsters.
In the mid-1970s, aged five or six, I started to get comics delivered on Saturday mornings: at first the British humour comics, Monster Fun and Krazy. Then I began to nibble at the periphery of what seemed like more “serious” comics, beginning with the ill-fated Action. Action was ultra-violent, with strips such as Hook Jaw, a Jaws rip-off about a giant killer shark, and Kids Rule O.K.!, a post-apocalyptic story in which only teenagers survive a plague. Action was summarily killed off in 1976 after a media storm: The Sun branded it a “sevenpenny nightmare” and TV presenter Frank Bough decried it on the news programme Nationwide. With hindsight, neither The Sun nor Bough could be said to be exemplary upholders of the nation’s morals, but there we go.
Action’s publisher, IPC, followed Action with a comic that was just as violent and subversive, but swerved criticism by setting all its stories in a far-off, unimaginably distant future reflected in its title. I’d come in at the death of Action, but I was there, aged seven, for the birth of its successor, 2000 AD.
PART THREE: MIDTOWN HIGH’S ONLY PROFESSIONAL WALLFLOWER
At the same time I started reading 2000 AD, I was getting into the British Marvel comics reprints, and discovering more about that fictional universe. The Avengers, Fantastic Four, The X-Men, Daredevil … an army of brightly costumed champions, a phalanx of superpowered heroes and dastardly villains. As the 1970s rolled into the 1980s, and I began my second decade, I could have told you more about the history of the Marvel Universe than I could have about the history of the British Isles.
Around this time, probably as the cosseted microcosm of primary school gave way to the unknown, shark-infested waters of a northern working-class comprehensive, I became acutely aware that comics were probably something I should have left behind with finger-painting and Wide Range Readers.
There was a tacit acknowledgement in the early 1980s that comics – perhaps with Roy of the Rovers as a tolerated, under-sufferance exception – were not what boys on the verge of their teenage years should be reading. Comics, especially superhero comics, were the sort of thing that, if you lived in the Action strip Kids Rule O.K.!, would get you a good kicking by the lawless teenage gangs.
It’s little wonder that the comics of the day are seen as adolescent power fantasies for the sort of kid who might be described, like Spider-Man’s alter ego Peter Parker, as “Midtown High’s only professional wallflower”. And that was from his teachers.
My own teachers took rather a dim view of my comic reading, even though I was already exhibiting a talent for creative writing. One English teacher told me I really needed to stop reading comics and science-fiction novels. That year we read Hard Times by Charles Dickens. It was set in Coketown, a fictionalised Preston, just up the road from Wigan, where I grew up, and opened with a dour teacher called Mr Gradgrind proclaiming: “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts.” Even at 13, the irony wasn’t lost on me. I continued to read comics, but perhaps a little more surreptitiously.
And puberty was landing, like the onset of mutant superpowers. Everything was changing. My spider-senses were tingling at the presence of girls. When I was 14, I was in a newsagent in Wigan, one of the few that had a regular delivery of colour Marvel comics direct from America. Standing at the till with my purchases, I was suddenly aware of three or four girls from my school walking into the shop. Burning with embarrassment, I also bought a copy of The Sun, shoved my comics inside, and walked out.
PART FOUR: COMICS AREN’T FOR KIDS ANY MORE
It is 1987. I am seventeen years old and standing in a long queue inside a small shopping centre on Manchester’s Oxford Road. Across from the shop we are queuing to get into is a travel agency, and an attractive young woman leans out of the door and calls to the almost exclusively male line: “What are you queuing up for?”
Most people look away and shuffle their feet. Someone mumbles something. The girl turns to her colleagues to relay the information. “They’re meeting some bloke who writes comics.” She shuts the door, any mild interest already evaporated.
The bloke who writes comics is Alan Moore, and he is doing a signing along with the bloke who draws comics, Dave Gibbons. Together they have created for DC Comics, home of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman, a new thing called Watchmen. It has been released in a monthly format over the previous year, alongside The Dark Knight Returns, a gritty, grimy reimagining of the Batman myth by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson.
Comics would never be the same again. Watchmen was about superheroes, but superheroes in a world where vigilantes slaughter child molesters and the skimpy costumes of superheroines are seen as an invitation to be raped by someone who is supposed to be one of the good guys. Where the police aren’t so grateful for the intervention of superheroes that they put a Bat-Signal on the roof of the precinct; they instead go on strike because masked vigilantes are making their job impossible.
Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns promoted sudden media interest, and newspapers and magazines started to run features with the headline “Comics aren’t just for kids any more!” The publishers, especially DC Comics, bought immediately into this idea and released series that were aimed at an adult readership, and dealt with more difficult themes. Comics such as Hellblazer, written by Jamie Delano, about the morally bankrupt Liverpool occultist John Constantine, and The Sandman, a sprawling, mythic epic about the Lord of Dreams, from the mind of Neil Gaiman.
Independent publishers rose out of the shadows of the twin monoliths of Marvel and DC, companies such as Fantagraphics, who put out the comic magazine Love and Rockets, by the brothers Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, and Vortex, which published Yummy Fur, the weirdly autobiographical slacker comic by Canadian cartoonist Chester Brown. In the UK, Deadline was launched, a monthly magazine stuffed with comic strips by the likes of Jamie Hewlett – who went on to design the look for Damon Albarn’s Gorillaz – and Philip Bond, alongside interviews with indie bands.
By this point, 1988, I was studying journalism on a nine-month course at Preston Polytechnic – in the Coketown of Hard Times – where I was being taught nothing but Facts, but also revelling in the unexpected novelty of comics suddenly being cool.
PART FIVE: UNDERSTANDING COMICS
In 1993 the American cartoonist Scott McCloud released a book called Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. As if anyone needed a whole book to explain to them how to understand a comic, right? You look at the pictures and read the words.
But the growing popularity of comics outside the geekosphere in the late 1980s and early 1990s did require some kind of shift on the part of those who had never read a comic since The Beano or The Dandy when they were a child.
There is a visual literacy required to understand how comics work. A comic isn’t just a picture with a caption or word balloon; it is the perfect symbiosis of art and the written word. The eye must be trained to take in the action in each panel and to absorb the words being said, either in speech or (usually) internal monologue in caption form. There can be panels, whole pages, even whole comic books without a written word in them. And yet, usually, that comic has been written, even if the action is conveyed by the skill of the artist.
A comic writer does not just fill in the little word balloons, nor does a comic artist merely draw what the writer tells them to. The collaboration of writer and artist is an alchemical marriage in which words and pictures are combined in the crucible of comics to create something that is neither purely prose nor purely art.
The very word “comics” has baggage; it suggests something childish, ephemeral, disposable, inherently funny. When the mainstream began to embrace comics, people tried to come up with new terms for them. “Sequential art” is one that lingered for a while, but by far the most popular terminology that sticks to this day is “graphic novel”.
If I tell you I read comics, that might suggest some kind of immaturity, perhaps even a mental or emotional deficiency. Graphic novels, on the other hand … why, that sounds like something you could buy in a real bookshop.
I don’t really care whether you call them graphic novels or not. But as when the National Television Awards give out gongs for “Serial Drama” when we all know they really mean “soaps”, I have always been, and will remain, a comic reader.
PART SIX: COMICS NO MORE
The 1990s were something of a golden age for comics, driven – for me, as a reader, at least – by Vertigo, the imprint of DC Comics that took under its umbrella existing titles such as Swamp Thing, Hellblazer and The Sandman, and added to them a roster of comics that were edgy, scary, adult and sometimes just plain weird. The Invisibles, by Scottish writer Grant Morrison, ran from 1994 to the turn of the millennium, a rampant, wild, sexy, pop-cultural, conspiracy-fuelled tour de force, and when I finished the last issue I wasn’t exactly sure what had just gone on for the previous six years, but I did vaguely wonder if I ever needed to read another comic book.
Which turned out to be rather prescient. I’d had peaks and troughs in comic reading over the first 30 years of my life, but had never truly abandoned them.
In 2002 I got married; our first child arrived in the following year, our second the year after that. Life changed; things got more expensive. There had to be belt-tightening. And for the first time in my life, I had to reassess whether buying ten or more comics at two or three quid a pop was a good use of dwindling resources.
So, I simply stopped. And as the economy of the 2000s started to take a downturn, I became acutely aware of the boxes and boxes of comics in the loft, some of them rare, old, sought-after issues.
I packaged up comics I’d had for decades and posted them off to eager eBay buyers. My first ten issues of The Sandman, signed by Neil Gaiman and cover artist Dave McKean. All my early 2000 ADs from the late 1970s. Even the first edition Watchmen collection, which I’d queued up to get signed by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons in Manchester in 1987. Off they all went, to try to contribute to the finances of a family living through the credit crunch.
But still, like a furtive addict, I couldn’t pass a comic shop, couldn’t resist leafing through the latest issues on the shelves. But it’s not like anyone was talking about comics any more; they weren’t cool or groundbreaking like they were in the 1990s. It was easy, like Peter Parker in issue 50 of The Amazing Spider-Man (1967), to figuratively toss them in the trash like he did with his superhero costume, and just say I was done.
And then, in 2008, the Iron Man movie came out, starring Robert Downey Jr. and the Marvel Cinematic Universe had begun. Comics began to slowly reel me back in, and I joyously threw up my arms and let them.
PART SEVEN: A DESTINY FULFILLED
In late 2016 I attended the Thought Bubble comic convention in Leeds with my family. Our son Charlie, now aged 13, had developed an interest in comics, probably fuelled by the Marvel movies and my own gentle pushing of the remains of my collection on him. Daughter Alice was less directly interested, but enjoyed the spectacle of this annual comic con.
While there I met Shelly Bond. Shelly, an American, had been an editor at DC’s Vertigo imprint, overseeing some of my favourite comics in the 1990s. She was married to Philip Bond, an artist whose work had appeared extensively in Deadline magazine. I spent a happy hour chatting to them.
By this point, I suppose I was a writer. I had worked in local papers from 1989 to 2015, when I had been made redundant. I immediately started a freelance career, combining that with writing novels. I’d had some small press books out from 2005, and in 2016 had just signed the contract for my first British mainstream commercial fiction novel, Calling Major Tom, which was released in 2017.
But I had always wanted to write comics. Ever since I was a kid. In 1983, I wrote and drew (badly) my own superhero stories, photocopied them, and sold them door-to-door in my street. I wanted to write comics professionally, but didn’t really know how to go about it.
I didn’t mention any of this to Shelly Bond. Instead I contacted her via Twitter a week later and asked if she might take a look at something I’d been working on, to see if it was worth pursuing.
“Why didn’t you tell me this when you were talking to me?” she said. “You’re so British!”
She asked me to send her one page of script from what I’d been working on. I did. She emailed back to ask for the whole scene this page was from. Then she said: “Have you written an entire issue?” I had.
I don’t know where I learnt to write comics. By reading them, I suppose. Then seeking out scripts written by professionals, in magazines and later online. I taught myself the visual literacy required to write a script. How to describe the action in each panel for the artist to interpret. How the words spoken by characters have to complement the art, not describe it. How many panels work on a page. How to transition between scenes. How less is more when it comes to dialogue. How to pace a story over 20 pages.
“What do you call this story?” asked Shelly when I’d sent the full, 20-page script of the first issue of a projected series about a kid from Preston who meets the ghost of Sid Vicious at Heathrow airport and can’t get rid of him.
“Don’t Let Them Take You Alive,” I said, referencing a quote that was attributed to Sid Vicious and which he may or may not have said. She laughed. “That’s too long to put on a comic book cover. I’ll get back to you.”
When she eventually did, it was with the news that she was heading a new imprint called Black Crown for the American comic publisher IDW, and that they wanted my comic to be one of its launch titles, and it was going to be called Punks Not Dead.
I was teamed with a British artist, Martin Simmonds, and with Martin a great friendship developed, as well as a deeper understanding of the collaborative nature of comics. The artist tells the story just as much as the writer, and the best artist-writer partnerships constantly surprise each other.
The mechanics of how a comic is made was, to me, a fascinating process to learn. The story is written as one might expect a film or TV script to look: the action is described in each panel, and the dialogue and descriptive captions added. There are rules, or at least guidelines. A page can contain one single image (a “splash page”), or a dozen panels. Watchmen famously had a nine-panel grid on every page. A word balloon indicating speech from a character shouldn’t contain more than about 25 words or it gets unwieldy. People in the left of the drawing generally speak first, so the comic can be read left-to-right, as the Western gaze naturally flows. As comic stories usually begin on a right-hand page, big reveals are put on left-hand pages so the shock moment isn’t spoilt by your eye moving to it before the set-up. A writer quickly learns that a character cannot be drawn doing too many things at once (“Batman punches the Joker in the face, pulls out his Batarang and leaps through the plate-glass window”).
Once the script has been given the green light by the editor it goes to the artist, who will interpret the script with their own – usually far superior – sense of visual, sequential storytelling. In the early days of modern comics, the art job was split up into different processes by different people: one would pencil the story, another would add the inks to finish off the illustrations, and yet another would colour the panels. These days, especially with the rise of digital art, many artists do the whole job themselves.
Once the finished art has been completed, a letterer will add the speech balloons and captions. Lettering is one of the criminally ignored disciplines of comics, because a good letterer can elevate a comic to a work of art. Take, for example, Todd Klein’s innovative lettering on The Sandman, and the way he lent otherworldly weight to Dream’s every word with white-on-black, fluidly ragged balloons.
Sometimes the interior artist will provide a cover for the comic, other times there will be a regular cover artist. To use The Sandman again as an example, Dave McKean’s rich, evocative photo-collages gave another distinctive look to the series.
Comics truly are one of the most collaborative media there is, and it only begins with the writer.
After Punks Not Dead was released in 2018, I wrote another series for Black Crown, Eve Stranger, and got to work with Philip Bond, something of a dream come true for the 18-year-old who had read his work in Deadline. Then came another, almost literal dream: writing the Books of Magic series, a spin-off from Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman comics. More followed and, eventually, work for 2000 AD.
Which is where I am now, putting the finishing touches to a series called Lowborn High, an idea I came up with after wondering where the kids who aren’t well-connected enough to get into Hogwarts end up – yep, it’s Harry Potter meets Grange Hill. And BBC Studios, the production company behind the likes of Luther and Doctor Who, has just optioned Eve Stranger to be adapted into a TV series.
Fifty-two and a bit years after my first comic book was pressed into my hands, forty-five years after I bought the first issue of 2000 AD, thirty-four years after The Sandman was published, I accept that comic books are in my DNA. Just like Dr Manhattan in Watchmen, I can see all these years spread out behind me, the influence of comics on my life. Like the X-Gene that makes the mutants of the X-Men what they are, like the radioactive spider-venom flowing in Peter Parker’s veins, like the sun’s rays that give Superman, born under another star, his powers, comics are in the blood, and they have, in part, made me what I am.
FIVE ESSENTIAL COMICS
It’s almost painfully clichéd to suggest this as an essential comic, but it truly is an exemplar of the form, even 35 years on. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons used original characters not burdened by decades of continuity for a postmodern take on a familiar concept: the superhero.
Love and Rockets
Brothers Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez tell – as a writer and artist of their own strips – a sprawling, epic, decades-long story. Jaime’s Locas stories are about the fictional LA suburb of Hoppers and its inhabitants, at turns fun and pathos-drenched, while Gilbert’s Palomar tales in a Mexican village are elegiac and haunting.
You’ll know it from the world-conquering Netflix adaption, but the 75 issues of the story penned by Neil Gaiman with a wealth of artistic collaborators is an early example of how a long-running comic series could deviate from the norm, telling a big, overarching story with excursions and detours taking in fable, folklore, mythology, religion and humanity,
The Department of Truth
Written by James Tynion IV with art by David Barnett’s Pucks Not Dead collaborator Martin Simmonds, this is an astonishingly detailed entangling of pretty much every conspiracy theory and urban myth ever. A dark and compelling exploration of America’s murky underbelly.
Marjane Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel about growing up in Iran during the Islamic Revolution is a classic example of how comics can be used to tell powerful, true stories. See also Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the story of his father’s like as a Jew in Nazi Germany.
David Barnett is a journalist, novelist and comic book writer. He handled the words, while his son Charlie Barnett – an illustration student at Falmouth University – took care of the pictures. David’s latest novel, There is a Light That Never Goes Out, is available in all good bookshops.
This piece originally appeared in Comics, the 10th edition of Tortoise Quarterly. Comics, and all other editions, are available in to order in glorious, old-fashioned print, at a special members’ discount.