News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Exhibit Review: Beano: The Art Of Breaking The Rules

 Beano: The Art Of Breaking The Rules. Andy Holden. London: Somerset House, October 21, 2021-March 6, 2022.

Reviewed by Mark Hibbett

There are two separate exhibitions happening at once in Somerset House's Beano: The Art Of Breaking The Rules, one of which is significantly more successful than the other.

The first is a fascinating retrospective of Beano strips going all the way back to the comic's beginnings in 1938, with original artwork sitting next to vintage comics. The curator, Andy Holden, has done a great job of bringing together rarely-seen originals that still fizz with life decades later. The work of established greats like Leo Baxendale and Dudley Watkins sing with excitement, and Jim Petrie's Minnie The Minx similarly bursts from the pages, even when those pages are browned with age. Seeing the work up close like this is a real thrill, especially when you notice margin notes such as the conversation between Leo Baxendale and his wife about the need to get the page inked and round to DC Thomson offices by the next day.

Throughout the show the original artwork is treated with respect, with artists properly credited and captions which tell the story of how The Beano became such an entrenched part of British life. The discussion on how a "slap-up feast" came to be such a constant of the comic during wartime was especially illuminating, and anyone who has ever been a child in the UK is bound to get a few rushes of nostalgic joy. For me it was seeing original cover art for Plug, a comic I've not thought about for at least 40 years, and the sight of those much-coveted Dennis and Gnasher fan club badges and "smart wallet."

It's also surprisingly funny. Like many, I gave up on The Beano as a surly twelve-year old ready for the more "grown-up" delights of Marvel and 2000 AD, and so was surprised by how many times I laughed out loud. There's a cheeky, mildly subversive sense of humour that is highlighted throughout, in the showcased strips as well as other parts of the exhibition. Favorites here were a handwritten letter to the editor from 1948 ("Will you please stop Lord Snooty") and the caption for a Banksy screen print which says "Banksy declined to be in the show but we ... included him anyway, because Dennis and his pals never accept an authoritative 'no’."

The second exhibition could have done with a lot more of this sort of attitude. As with the Good Grief Charlie Brown show in 2018, Somerset House does not seem to be confident enough to do an exhibition just about comics, and has to drag in some “Proper Art” as well. There are some commissioned works which in theory are responses to The Beano, but mostly it's pre-existing art that only has a very tenuous link with the main theme, and appears to be there as way to guide children away from comics and towards something more culturally acceptable.

Honourable exceptions to this include Horace Panter's answer to David Hockney's Splash and David Litchfield's Lowry-inspired Beanotown, but most of the rest of this part of the exhibit looks rather dull and pompous next to the exciting, dynamic and witty world of the Beano strips. A piece inspired by "The Numbskulls," for instance, looks like a dreary exercise in stating the obvious next to the wild invention of the actual comic, and seeing expensive, ponderous fine art  described as "playful" or "witty" just seems daft in a room full of cheap, accessible, and genuinely funny Beano strips down through the years.


Despite all that, this remains a beautifully put together exhibition showing off a wildly inventive part of British culture that does not get anything like enough attention. It's a shame that Teacher had to get involved so much, but in the end Dennis, Minnie and all the others are the real stars of the show.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

Book Review - Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism by Paul S. Hirsch

 Paul S. Hirsch. Pulp Empire: The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism. Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 2021. 335 pp. 9780226350554. $30.00.

 reviewed by John A. Lent

“The Secret History of…” subtitles a few recent books in comics scholarship, leaving some of us befuddled as to what is the secret. That is not the total case with Paul S. Hirsch’s Pulp Empire:  The Secret History of Comic Book Imperialism. There are some of us who have researched the political economy of comics--topics such as conglomerate ownership of the comics industries, corporate/government tie-ins to comic/cartoon art, or governmental roles relative to comics of a regulatory, restrictive, and occasionally facilitative nature, all slighted in the corpus of literature. At least Matt McAllister, Kent Worcester, Leonard Rifas, and this reviewer are among scholars dealing with these issues.

However, much of what we believe about the United States government’s use of comic books for propaganda purposes has been based on supposition and a general distrust of agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), United States Information Agency (USIA), Writers War Board (WWB), and State Department. Paul S. Hirsch provides the proof aplenty of government’s active role, after searching thousands of previously classified boxes of documents in the Library of Congress, that he discovered accidentally. Hirsch related how he took laps around the library table (on his robotic legs)1 to express his excitement after finding this trove of “real” secret materials.

Hirsch found ample evidence that during World War II, the Writers War Board and other official agencies encouraged major comics publishing companies (Timely was an exception) to depict all Germans and Japanese (not just the military) as subhuman and not worthy to live; that during the Cold War, the CIA, State Department, and other groups used comic books to promote the U.S. official, clandestine foreign policy and win the hearts and minds of the developing world and Communist bloc, and generally, present the U.S. as a “positive egalitarian country.”

Hirsch very effectively covers much ground and is able to provide useful contextual background in a coherent, well-organized fashion, full of fascinating excerpts from the comics, anecdotes, quoted material, and facts and opinions extracted from “secret war records, official legislative documents, and caches of personal papers.” Through textual analyses of the actual comic books and strips, he tells about cartoon characters, such as Little Moe, created by the USIA, to show the grim life of a citizen of an unnamed Communist nation. As Hirsch relates it:

…Moe is shivering in his small hovel. An overweight party functionary barges in and orders Moe to hang a picture of a leading communist over his fireplace. In the next panel, Moe’s dog, pleading to come in from the cold, enters the hovel. In the final panel, the dog sees the grim image above the fireplace and immediately begins pleading with Moe to let him back outside (pp. 226-227).

The author supplements his review of documents with interviews, one of which was with relatives of Malcolm Ater, owner of Commercial Comics, the largest producer of state-sponsored propaganda comic books. Apparently, Ater and the CIA operated together in a hushed manner familiar to devotees of spy movies or comics. Hirsch said:

Whenever the agency needed a run of special comic books, Ater would drive to Dupont Circle in Washington, DC, and stand on the sidewalk until a car driven by CIA employees pulled up. Once Ater entered the car, it drove in endless loops around Dupont Circle. The employees told Ater what sort of comic book they wanted, what languages to use, and when it was needed. They then handed him a large bag of cash and let him out. Once the comic was finished, Ater would return to Dupont Circle. In the car again, he would hand over proofs for agency approval. After he received the go-ahead, he would print the comic book and deliver the copies to the CIA.

Pulp Empire is spiced with interesting tidbits, e.g., that country singer and songwriter Hank Williams admitted to getting lyrics for his songs from reading romance comics, that a 1944 comics story “revealed” that “Filipinos Are People,” or that the atomic bomb was treated for laughs in Donald Duck comics. (On the other hand, EC Comics took a serious approach.)

Much space was given to the anti-comics campaign of the late 1940s and 1950s--how the U.S. government switched from being a proponent of comics during World War II to siding with Dr. Fredric Wertham and others that they were carriers of brutal violence and explicit sex that led to juvenile delinquency; how Wertham ignored scientific principles in conducting his research; how comics fashioned racism, and how they were tamed in 1954 with the creation of the Comics Magazine Association of America and the seal of approval. Chapter Five, cleverly titled, “American Civilization Means Airstrips and Comic Strips,” deals with ensuing anti-comics campaigns outside of the U.S.; unfortunately, it singles out only France and Britain, when, in fact, such campaigns existed in at least a couple dozen countries.

The seven main chapters treat the topics chronologically, with a few diversions backward or forward, and even sideway, that enrich the narrative. Hirsch takes pains to define terms, such as “disposable culture” and “comics as trash,” as well as comic book/government wartime conceptions of the allies, enemies, and race. Documenting his wide range of primary and secondary sources, the author provides 31 pages of information and citation endnotes.

The book is enriched by a higher-than-normal grade of paper, classy design, and 45 brightly-colored illustrations. The end result is a remarkable volume, very rich and unique in the depth of research, attractive in design, highly-revealing and full in content, and crisp and pleasurable in readability.

 1 Hirsch tells readers that he was run over by a hit-and-run truck driver when he was 25 years old and lost both of his legs.


A version of this review will appear in the next issue of IJOCA

Sunday, October 17, 2021

Two upcoming presentations by IJOCA writer CT Lim

Conversations  |  General  |  English  |  1 hr

13 Nov Sat, 2:30pm - 3:30pm
Festival Pass  - $16 (Early Bird) | $20 (Regular)
location SISTIC Live


Whenever there's an epic failure or event on a global scale, you can be sure that satirical comic authors will soon have their say. How does their brand of dark humour keep us sane, critical, and honest about our society, without trivialising very real concerns? Join these comic creators as we look upon a world on fire with concern, hope, and nervous laughter.

This programme includes a live Q&A towards the end of the session.


CT Lim is an educator who writes about history and popular culture. His articles have appeared in the Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture, and Print Quarterly.

Conversations  |  SEA Focus  |  English  |  1 hr

10 Nov Wed, 7pm - 8pm
Festival Pass  - $16 (Early Bird) | $20 (Regular)
location SISTIC Live


Do popular genres in comics such as horror or superheroes only seek to entertain? How should comics tackling difficult topics and histories regard their reader? This panel considers the guilt and pleasures that we associate with comics, and examine our misconceptions and assumptions towards this storytelling form.

This pre-recorded programme is co-presented with Singapore Book Council.


CT Lim is an educator who writes about history and popular culture. His articles have appeared in the Southeast Asian Journal of Social Science, Journal of Popular Culture, and Print Quarterly.