A Dazzling Lack of Respectability: Comics and Academia in the UK: 1971 – 2011 by David Huxley

29 Jul

The title of this essay is a parody of the title of an article Paul Gravett wrote in 1988: ‘Euro- comics: A Dazzling Respectability’, which contrasted the mainland European attitude towards comics to that in Britain. This essay is essentially a personal memoir, but as I have been involved in British academia since 1969, first as what is now amusingly referred to as a ‘customer’, then as an academic librarian, and then as a lecturer, I have seen the almost imperceptible, and still continuing change in attitudes towards comics from colleges and universities for around forty years. I should also point out that the institutions that I’m familiar with are the old art colleges, which turned into polytechnics, which then turned into the ‘new universities’. Attitudes in many of the older universities, from colleagues I’ve spoken to, have moved much more slowly, if at all.

1971: Comics as academic essays

Having had a ‘proper’ grammar school education I had ‘grown out’ of comics by the time I was in my teens, but I became reintroduced to them when I went to art college to study fine art. Warhol and Lichtenstein had made comics a fertile subject for ‘pop art’, although as my tutors had declared that ‘representational art is dead’ anything I painted with a comic image in was totally disliked. When back home I looked at old copies of the Eagle and TV Express and the work of Denis McLoughlin and realised just how good the artwork was in those comics. At the same time the most interesting part of my course had become the ‘Complementary Studies’ element, which was taught by Ian Watson, who was soon to make a breakthrough as a science fiction author. The course was actually called ‘Speculative Fiction’, and he allowed two of us to submit our final year essays in the form of SF comics. Mine later appeared redrawn (much better) by Angus McKie in Comic Tales.

1981: Courses on the comic

In the mid-1970s I worked briefly at Manchester Polytechnic, and then moved to Newcastle Polytechnic where the Library bought in a wide range of comics and ‘Doc’ Garriock did some guest lectures on comics for Art & Design students. I then returned to Manchester Polytechnic to look after their slide collection, which was housed in the Department of history of Art & Design. Due to staff shortages I was asked to take on extra duties, which involved lecturing. The structure of Art & Design courses had changed little since 1971, and the Department taught art history to a range of practice students. When I began teaching Graphic Design students you could essentially construct your own course with little or no documentation, as long as the required set of marks was produced at the relevant time. Thus in 1981 I was able to teach what was basically a ‘History of Comics’ course at Manchester Polytechnic. The main problem was a paucity of good sources. Alongside Perry and Aldridge’s Penguin Book of Comics there were a small range of key texts including works by Couperie, Estren, Herdeg, Horn, Reitberger and Steranko.

One of the graphics students who was in the course, Glen Dakin, wrote a very good dissertation on Krazy Kat and went on to draw for Pssst, the impressive but short-lived attempt to bring well-produced adult comics to Britain in the 1980s. As well as continuing to buy comics (for research purposes, I tried to persuade myself) I continued to draw & write comics, both self-published and in a range of publications, (including Pssst,) and in comics from Denis Gifford’s Ally Sloper in 1977 to Oink in 1987.

1987: Comic Conferences

At this point in time there were many conventions but no dedicated academic conferences on comics in the UK. There were not even hybrid events that might compare to anything like grand cultural celebrations such as the annual Angouleme festival in France. The closest thing I saw in Britain that approximated to a cultural celebration of comics was at the Birmingham Readers and Writers Festival in 1987. In amongst such luminaries as Gore Vidal, Laurie Lee and Margaret Drabble there was a ‘Comic Book Culture’ day. As a warm up to guests from 2000AD and Alan Moore I adapted one of my lectures into ‘The Seduction of the Innocent’- a more general talk about horror comics. Attendees were charged £1 for the talk, which was well attended, perhaps because it was advertised as ‘for adults only’. Meanwhile, at comic conventions in London, where I would still go to feed my comic buying habit, I would sometimes meet Martin Barker and we would sit in a corner, two bearded academics amongst the fanboys. At one convention, I think in 1987, I did a short talk on underground comics in a large theatre, where I realised that unlike students, punters at a convention could vote with their feet. It was a sobering experience. Perhaps I should have charged £1.

1988: A False Dawn

At the same time, at Manchester Victoria University, Paul Dawson was running a graphic novel course. It was only the emergence of the term ‘graphic novel’ that allowed him to run this course in the English department and even then he told me that he faced some opposition. As there was also more money in the old universities he was also able to have guest speakers such as Bryan Talbot. In 1988 Paul wrote an article for The Times Higher Education Supplement in which he enthused about the recent developments in the reputation of comics and graphic novels whereby they were now stocked in established bookshops, and deemed worthy of academic study.

I wrote to the letter column of the TES in reply, expressing the hope that he was right, but I quoted Richard Hoggart as still being representative, I thought, of the continuing establishment view of comics, ‘At the lowest level all this is illustrated in the sales of American comics…a passive taking-on of bad mass-art geared to very low mental age’ (Hoggart, 1957, p.201). I take no pleasure in the fact that I was broadly right. It is a quote I’ve used many times in different situations and I’m fed up with it. It is based, like so many ‘intellectual’ quotes on comics, on almost complete ignorance of the field.

1990: PhDs

I was advised that a PhD would do my career no harm. I was also advised to pick a subject that I thought I already knew everything about, and that in the course of my research I would discover that I didn’t actually know as much as I thought. This was good advice. The thesis was called The Growth and Development of Alternative Graphic Magazines 1966 – 1980. Notice that even here the word ‘comics’ was avoided, just so as not to scare off other parts of academia. I did the PhD at Loughborough University, through contacts and with a supervisor who was an expert in 18thC alternative magazines (which have a surprising amount in common with their 20thC counterparts). The Phd, with the theory bits taken out, was later published as Nasty Tales: Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll in the Underground in 1990. Judging by PhDs I have examined and attendees at our recent conferences there is now a healthy number of comic and graphic novel related PhDs completed or underway in this country.

1991: Diploma in Comics, Sequential Art and Cartooning

In 1991 the RSA established what looked like a very interesting course, the Diploma in Comics, Sequential Art and Cartooning and it was running at the London Cartoon Centre. It was really an advanced comic drawing and design course, and with a great dearth of academics who had any hands-on practical experience I became their external examiner. It was developing into a highly effective course, and just as I was beginning to discuss the further development of the syllabus with Eve Stickler, the Cartoon centre manager, their premises in London were lost and the course folded.

Recent developments

Recently there has been a wide range of interesting work and also many academic conferences in the UK dealing with comics. Some have dealt with very specific topics such as medicine and comics or women and comics, and there have been an on-going series of conferences at Manchester Metropolitan University, Thought Bubble in Leeds and Chris Murray’s Dundee Comics day. Two new journals have been added to the roster of academic publications on comics: The Journal of Graphic Novels & Comics and Studies in Comics. Chris Murray is also launching an MLitt in Comic Studies at Dundee University, with practice based degrees already being offered at BA or MA level course by Glyndwr University, Swindon College School of Art, and UCA. All these developments would have been unthinkable just a short time ago and are not only indicative of the healthy state of comic research in the UK, but also of international interest in the field. Indeed, if international conferences are included it is, at the moment, virtually possible to attend one useful academic conference on comics every month.


So, leaving aside the more ivory of ivory towers, my experience of the attitude of academia to comics in the UK can be summarised in three, probably overlapping, phases: 1: Don’t care, 2: Don’t like it, 3: Is there money in it? Perhaps that’s overly cynical. Having talked to the most experienced UK observers of comics, in particular Martin Barker, Mel Gibson, Paul Gravett and Roger Sabin, I think the case can be made that in the last two years we have reached a ‘tipping point’, whereby the reputation of comics is, if not assured, can only improve, and that any remaining criticisms will seem as stupid as someone saying that films are not worthy of serious study. Though of course, perhaps there are still some people who might say that films aren’t worthy of serious study…


Couperie, P. et al. A History of the Comic Strip, NY: Crown, 1968.

Dawson, P. ‘The Comic Come of Age’ in The Times Higher Educational Supplement, Dec 23, 1988, p14

Estren, M. J. A History of Underground Comics, San Francisco: Straight Arrow Books 1974.

Gravett, P. ‘Euro-comics: a Dazzling Respectability’ in Print, Nov/Dec, 1988, p74-96,204

Herdeg, W. (ed) The Art of the Comic Strip, Zurich: Graphis, 1972.

Hoggart, R, The Uses of Literacy: Aspects of Working Class Life, Chatto and Windus, 1957

Horn, M. (ed) The World Encyclopedia of Comics, NEL, 1976.

Huxley, D. Nasty Tales: Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll in the British Underground. Critical Vision, 2001.

Mc Kie, A. et al. Comic Tales. Northern Lights Press/Titan Books, 1988.

Perry, G. Aldridge, A. The Penguin Book of Comics, Penguin Comics, 1967.

Reitberger, R. & Fuchs, W. Comics: Anatomy of a Mass Medium, Studio Vista, 1971.

Steranko, J. The Steranko History of Comics, Reading, Pennsylvania: Supergraphics, 1970.

David Huxley is Senior Lecturer on the BA (Hons) Film and Media Studies course at Manchester Metropolitan University. His subject specialisms are the Graphic Novel, Comic Book & Comic Strip, Censorship, Hollywood Film and Animation. His PhD thesis was The Growth and Development of British Alternative Graphic Magazines 1966-1986. Current research interests include the graphic novel and the comic strip,animation and the horror film and early twentieth century British Music Hall performers. He has drawn and written a wide range of adult and children’s comics, and designed posters for conferences held at the university.

He has supervised a wide range of PhDs in the fields of the graphic novel and the comic strip, horror, genre and national film and examined a wide range of PhDs in film and cultural studies.

He is joint editor of Routledge’s The Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics.

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Posted by on 2011/07/29 in Guest Writers


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