COMICS – THE SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT
By Paul Halas
To this day there’s still an intellectual snobbery about comics in the UK, which is a shame as no other medium can communicate so well with so much economy. On mainland Europe, in the USA, in countries throughout Asia, comics are widely read by a large cross section of the public, but in the UK, despite a relaxing of the attitude that ‘comics are just for kids and simple-minded nerds’, comics remain the poor cousin of the other communication media. Over the years the UK has produced some fine comics creators, but comic books and graphic novels remain a niche interest.
Comics have been an ever present companion to me throughout my life. There was always something appealing about sequential pictures accompanied by words, and comics provided fodder for my desire for subversiveness to win out over conformity, for cocking a snook at authority. None did it better than ‘The Bash Street Kids’ in the Beano, a strip that was so rumbunctious and absurd that its creator, Leo Baxendale, became an icon of the notorious American ‘underground comix’ artists of the 1970s.
I was lucky. My parents, animated film-makers, were interested in the artwork of various comics and bucked the trend of looking down on them. I has ample access to a wide range comics that included L’il Abner, Jane, Dick Tracy, Rupert Bear, the occasional strips in Lilliput Magazine, and of course the 1950s staples such as the Beano, Dandy and Topper… Then my comics horizon suddenly widened when my parents bought me my first Tintin book, ‘King Ottakar’s Sceptre’. No matter that it was in French – at the age of seven I had enough of a problem deciphering English, let alone French – it opened my comics universe to adventure, foreign lands and more engaging characters, such as Capitaine Haddock, Professeur Tournesol, les Dupont… Comics could run to fifty pages and more, just like films. And if I couldn’t read them, I could still follow the story in pictures.
Throughout the 1950s there was a constant influx of comics from the United States. In spite of the prevailing notion that comics were supposedly subversive, I had little time for most of them. With the publication in 1954 of his book ‘The Seduction of the Innocent’, the reviled Dr Wertham led a McCarthy-like crusade against the comic book industry which imposed a code of conduct on US comics production that led to a blandness and conformity of vision that I as a young kid found pretty unappealing. I make an honourable exception for ‘Mad Magazine’, which somehow avoided the censor’s scalpel and came with the added bonus that all adults tut-tutted it furiously. As for the superheroes comics, I had no time for them then and can’t abide them now. I think we have Dr Wertham to thank for that.
Until the age of 20 I carried on enjoying the Tintin books, which were now supplemented by Asterix, which I could by then read in the original French. I was charmed and amused by them, but always on the lookout for anything new. And then it happened – and how it happened…
The first American underground comix I laid eyes on simply knocked me for a loop. It’s no exaggeration to say the experience was life-changing.
I’d started started to embrace the subculture of the day – a sort of Jeckyll and Hyde amalgam of budding political awareness and the druggy world of Freakdom. Then I picked up my first copy of ‘Zap’ Magazine. The mix of bizarre storytelling, weird characters, way out psychedelia, uninhibited sex and occasional mind-boggling violence blew my mind.
The inhibitions and controls that applied to every form of art and communication I’d ever come across before were completely absent in this new movement.
Robert Crumb was the unassuming high priest of underground comix (the ‘x’ distinguished them from their tame, overground distant relatives), but there were scores of other very fine creators dashing out hundreds of titles. Some were ecological (oh yeah, we knew about global warming back then), some feminist, some political, some pornographic and others arty, drugged-up, absurdist, surreal… What they all had in common was their independence and disdain for “straight society”… for the establishment. I was entranced. I bought and I collected. I still have about 200 of these survivors from the 1970s, but they’re so loved and so re-read they’re all falling to pieces.
I didn’t simply read about the permanently zonked counter-culture, I took it rather too much to heart. To quote Gilbert Shelton’s ‘Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers’, “Dope will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no dope”. Having studied film-making I’d thought that was going to be my career trajectory – only I dropped out of my first post-college job. Through my twenties I did spells of work at different jobs – often painting in colours for animated film celluloids – but it was a hand to mouth existence. All freelance stuff and long spells of not ‘needing to work’. I tried my hand at making my own underground comix, but poor drawing and limited application meant they died a sad and lonely death. And all the time I was taking more than my fair share of recreational drugs. They’d lied about the effects of the evil weed, so all the other stuff about ‘hard drugs’ was baloney too, right? Or so I believed for far too long. 1970s London had become a very toxic place for me.
So where does this stuff about Donald Duck saving my life come into this? Nearly there.
While doing some freelance painting work in (by coincidence) my parents’ animation studio, a need arose for help writing a couple of German kids’ comics that had been commissioned alongside a film series. No one had a clue about comics writing. My father’s secretary knew I was always joking and scribbling nonsense and suggested I had a try at them. I’d never actually considered writing the things – not professionally, anyway. I loved it. And the stories weren’t too bad.
At the same time a well-regarded science fiction novelist was contributing to a completely different project at the studio. He told me about these crazy guys who were paying him good money to recycle his old stuff into Disney comics, and gave me an introduction.
I met with two editors, a Dane and a Swede, who explained they were with a Danish publishing group that produced Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse comics under licence from Disney. Their magazine was something of an institution in Scandinavia, as much read by adults as children, and they would come to England to tap up TV sit-com writers in order to get good quality stories. The writing all was in English, then the scripts would be translated into the language of wherever the magazine appeared. I was given a try-out.
My first effort was dismal and the editors tore it apart. I immediately realised this was something I would not be able to blag, and fortunately I was given a second bite of the cherry. I swotted up on how the characters function and the universe they live in, I applied some logic and the lessons I’d learned about dramatic structure from editing classes at film school, and the result was rather better. I was told to keep ’em coming, I obviously had some talent to work with. The next few efforts improved. I was getting the hang of them.
It was timely. I needed to remove myself plus partner from London and its malign influences, and Donald Duck had thrown me a lifeline.
It was seismic change, West London to the Wiltshire countryside, but being out in the boondocks was evidently good for my inventiveness. I wrote Disney stories and scripts for nearly forty years. Did Donald Duck save my life? The intervention of my father’s secretary and the science fiction writer were certainly ‘Sliding Doors’ moments.
Working for the ‘Evil Empire’, albeit indirectly, might seen an odd thing to do for someone with deeply left wing sympathies. It was first and foremost a job, and even if the Disney ethic was repellent to me the work itself and the people I was dealing with were far more palatable. You still couldn’t get away from the notion that you were part of a machine, and that machine was making a fortune out of you: the writers and illustrators were paid a one-off fee – no royalties for the likes of us. But it was a take it or leave it situation, and I took it.
(At one point a couple of colleagues and I tried to get the Writers’ Guild to lobby the publisher to pay out royalties. That, we were told, was never going to happen.)
I became good friends with my editors and would get totally engrossed in the work. To make the stories work – and in comparison with any similar comics they were pretty damn good – you had to immerse yourself in the world of talking ducks and mice. My second wife found it absolutely bizarre listening to an editor and me discussing what Donald Duck would do when faced with a certain situation. But that was my life; you took it seriously or you did a bad job, and any story idea that wasn’t up to scratch was tossed straight out.
Over four decades, through good times and bad, through alcoholism, heart surgery and divorce, through times of happiness, parenthood and good friendships, I kept the stories coming out. More than a thousand of them all told. They appeared in magazines in the States, across Europe, India, Indonesia and even in Japan, the stronghold of Manga. I went to comics festivals in Italy, Denmark and Spain, where eventually a new generation writers and illustrators told me they grew up reading my stories. It was never ever easy – had it been, the results would’ve been poor. During that period I took on other work – a handful of cartoon films, comics for other publishers, books for other parts of the Disney empire – but it was the Duck that paid all the bills.
All things eventually end. As sales of the magazine started to drop – thanks to the relentless development of computer and online entertainment – American know-how was brought in to boost the ‘Disney product’. Sales dropped further. For years our workloads had been diminishing, and the inevitable happened about eight years ago when the editor who handled all my work and I received our fare-thee-wells.
This fall from grace occurred three years before Jeremy Corbyn became leader of the Labour Party – which was another life changing event for me. After following politics for decades I knew I had to be properly involved. From not knowing how to fill my enforced retirement I was suddenly as busy as ever once again – campaigning, leaflet and letter writing, getting involved in the local CLP. I had writing to attend to once more, even if to my wife’s chagrin it was unpaid. Being politically active is important to me now, but comics have been my whole life…
Comics have remained vitally important to me; writing them, reading them, keeping an eye on what’s new. And while the political scene in this crazy world gives me much to write about, I don’t half miss the sheer, joyful silliness of creating comics. Boy, do I miss the laffs. I’m not through with them yet.
Paul Halas is a writer of Jewish heritage whose escape from 1970s hippidom was the discovery that he could invent stories. He spent forty years contributing to various Disney magazines and books, as well as a variety of non-Disney comics, books and animated films. His retirement from commercial writing coincided with Jeremy Corbyn becoming the Labour Party leader. He is a self described Corbynista. As a result he has been a Labour activist for the past five years – and most of his current writing is political. He is currently hoping to find something funny to write about.