War on wokies

Is “our” culture in peril?

By Paul Halas

The right wing press doesn’t pull its punches: an army of do-gooders, snowflakes and lefty killjoys are out to rob us of our freedoms and force us to abandon our cherished traditions. Our history is being re-written, monuments are being torn down, our favourite books, films and TV programmes are being censored. Comedians daren’t tell jokes any more, inclusivity has hijacked the airwaves.

They seem to be everywhere now – gaggles of painfully-sincere, well-meaning folk cavorting in support of some cause or other, unwashed-looking people daubing buildings with paint or sitting and blocking thoroughfares, and all manner of other nuisances. Even to many of us on the left, some highly worthy forms of expression can come across as pretty ridiculous. Pan pipes for peace, macrame against the cuts.

May Day, 1920 (Clement Moran)
Raised consciousness or silly and out of touch?

When people start singing at the end of demonstrations I’ve often thought how effective it is at clearing the streets. Wokeism isn’t to everybody’s taste, but is it a threat to our national culture?

If our national culture is under threat, maybe we need to reflect on what that culture is and how it evolved…. and what parts of that culture are in urgent need of further evolution. For a start, the UK’s national culture is predominantly white. (And that goes for the rest of Europe as well, and the countries taken over by white people. Britishness has its own individual flavour, but it has a great deal in common with the other European cultures – especially those with a colonialist past.)

In recent years the UK has begun to embrace multiculturalism and made a start at owning some of its past. And even the progress that has been made is met with resistance from large sections of the media, and the population at large… Which isn’t surprising when you look at hundreds of years of “our” cultural history.

Art, entertainment, literature and more recently cinema and TV all reflect a society’s values and also shape them. And our cultural values have an awful lot of baggage – racist baggage, class based baggage and misogynist baggage.

Racism and the assumed superiority of Europeans goes back to the Crusades and probably considerably before. We come across it in Shakespeare. If Othello wasn’t an outright racist play, it certainly was about racism, and The Merchant of Venice was overtly antisemitic. (It’s a moot point that nearly all productions of Othello until very recently involved white actors in blackface.)

Thomas Keene in Othello 1884 Poster - Vikipedi:Seçkin resimler/Eğlence, kültür ve yaşam tarzı/Tiyatro - Vikipedi
Blackface production

Concurrent with Shakespeare was the birth of the East India Company. Envious of the Dutch and Portuguese, who were raking in fortunes via the spice trade in the “East Indes”, the British and French set up their own East India companies in order to grab a slice of the pie. I find the British East India Company fascinating. It was the first example of modern multinational corporate capitalism – a trading company formed on modern lines with a board of directors and shareholders, which grew into a ruthless colonial power – and set a template for exploitation on a truly massive scale.

While British enterprises had joined in the lucrative slave trade between Sub-Saharan Africa and the New World, and had quickly come to regard their “cargo” as less than human in order to be able to carry out that shamefully inhuman business, the first European traders to set up shop in India tended to regard the Indians they dealt with on a much more equal footing. That was hardly surprising, as the Mughal Empire far surpassed its European counterparts in wealth, power, opulence and learning. Indeed, the Europeans were regarded as somewhat uncouth and lacking in manners. “…A handful of traders who have not yet learned to wash their bottoms.” The Europeans were tolerated, however, because the trade they brought was mutually beneficial.

Through chicanery, good fortune, military prowess, brutal repression, treachery and sheer ruthlessness the British East India Company gradually became a force to be reckoned with, and in time the dominant force in India. To begin with the main source of discrimination between all the players was class rather than ethnicity. Europeans deferred to powerful Indians and vice versa. Intermarriage was common (although it’s doubtful whether many European women married Indian men).

The East India Company. A shift in the balance of power

Without doubt the expansion of the East India Company’s power was driven by commercial greed, but what had started as a trading venture turned into out and out colonialism, and, realising how wealthy and powerful the company had become, the British government muscled in and gradually took over. The Raj was born. Indians increasingly laboured for British overlords rather than Indians – and of course that made them inferiors. The caste system was nothing new in India, but now the top caste was all white, and the humblest of colonists considered themselves superior to anyone with brown skin. The remaining Indian potentates and maharajas were now mere puppets. Intermarriage was forbidden; miscegenation took place behind locked doors. As so often through history, the implementation of racism came about through exploitation and money-making.


It’s impossible to underestimate the extent to which colonialism has shaped British culture. And that goes for the various cousins across the Channel. Our wealth grew from it, people went to the colonies to make their fortunes, it contributed enormously to our sense of self-importance. The subjugation of other peoples was painted as philanthropy, the theft of their wealth and resources was bringing development and civilisation, the obliteration of their religions and cultures was our sacred duty. You might have laboured in a factory in Manchester or stoked the boiler of a new-fangled steamship, you might have been the bottom of the heap but at least you weren’t black. And you could always prove your worth by taking the Queen’s shilling and joining in the carnage.

What was painted as heroism was frequently genocide.

Racism, snobbism and misogyny are deeply entrenched in British and the white world’s culture. As a baby boomer I’ve seen these traits perpetuated through every decade that I’ve lived through, and although we’re starting to acknowledge and admit to them a little more nowadays they’re still part of our cultural fabric.

One of the more demeaning parts of the prejudice engrained in society is the use of stereotypes. They’ve been a constant.

With the Chinese Labour Corps. NCO. "Don't yer know er own bloomin' number yet?" Chinaman (proudly). "One - seven - six."
In humorous magazines
Punch Magazine’s affectionate view of the Irish
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In advertising
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In political publications
In pulp magazines
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In much loved movies
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In sitcoms that should be forgotten
In sitcoms that should be dead and buried

As well as demeaning and patronising people of colour, our culture also strove to keep women in their place.

Buy the right bread to keep your man

The lower orders had to be kept in line too. And anyone who didn’t conform – vegetarians, teetotallers, intellectuals, left-wingers…

H M Bateman’s brilliant observations were usually about snobbism – but they were also usually very snobbish

My own field, comics, has not been immune. Comics I have grown up with and loved have been guilty of some pretty crass stereotyping. Two in particular spring to mind.

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Tintin. Herge evolved a bit in later life. Even so…
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I always adored Asterix comics, and while much of the humour derived from affectionate stereotyping this crosses a line

Most of this imagery is pretty old, but it’s part of the white world’s legacy; maybe more mine than younger generations’, but if anyone believes we’ve outgrown such primitive attitudes they should think again. Our culture, our media, our education have all been fuelled by such attitudes. We have become multicultural – but there can be few people from families that immigrated to Europe at some point who haven’t been made painfully aware of our cultural failings. There may no longer be signs on doors saying no dogs, no Irish, no blacks, but we haven’t eradicated snobbism, we haven’t eradicated inequality, we haven’t eradicated misogyny and we certainly haven’t eradicated racism. Just ask the young English footballers who failed to score their penalty kicks in the Euro final last year.

As a society we are evolving, or sections of society are. But there’s a large rump who remain entrenched in the old attitudes. The consumers of right wing news, the Daily Express readers, those who believe the BBC is dangerously left wing. Those who think colonialism was a good thing and that exploitation by the rich and powerful somehow benefits us all. Having been a political activist I’ve locked swords with them countless times on letters pages, at street stalls and on doorsteps. We have a long way to go.

So, getting back to the subject of wokeism, and whether or not it’s imperilling our culture, I’d say I bloody well hope so. Let’s keep the good – John Betjeman, larks ascending, parish churches, the Mersey Beat, cream teas, J M Turner… – but let’s not kid ourselves that we don’t still have a toxic legacy to address. So when it comes to clog dancers against climate change, or foot massaging to save the rainforests, or basket weaving for world understanding, I’ll do my best to swallow my cynicism and be supportive. They’re on the side of the angels. War is being waged on wokies, and we have to support them or the dark side wins.

Paul Halas’s 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, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

Depression: episode 31

By Dan Pearce

Dan Pearce has done editorial work for many magazines and newspapers including New Society, Honey, 19, Oz, The Observer, The Times and Sunday Times, Mayfair and Penthouse. Dan has created book and record covers, political cartoons, comic strips and caricatures and he has written two graphic novels: ‘Critical Mess’ (against the nuclear industry) and ‘Oscar: The Second Coming’. His labour of love is the graphic novel, ‘Depression’ which is unfinished. He lived in Andalucia and then Umbria before coming back to live in the UK in Hastings. Dan went to the Colchester School of Art and the Central School of Art and his last painting was well received at the Sussex Open.

Dan has written two graphic novels. One of them, called Critical Mess, was against nuclear power and the most recent is Oscar: The Second Coming. Dan is a painter, he has always painted and the last time he exhibited was at Sussex Open in 2017. His Labour of love is a graphic novel called Depression which is unfinished. Dan lived in Andalucia and Umbria for 18 years before coming back to England to live in Hastings.

Vive les BDs!

Bandes dessinees (comics) – the French do it so much better.

Most of my working life was spent churning out comics scripts for the Disney characters, but much of my comics background was shaped by a culture on the other side of the Atlantic from “the evil empire”. I read and was influenced by French comics from a pretty young age. The examples I’ll write about are very much a personal and far from exhaustive selection of those that that fed my addiction.

The first comic book to tempt me away from a diet of Beanos and Dandys was King Ottakar’s Sceptre starring the boy reporter Tintin. (Okay, Herge was Belgian, but Tintin fits right into the francophone comics tradition.) Hitherto all the comics I’d read were one or two pagers, with gags rather than stories, and pretty inconsequential ones at that. Although I couldn’t understand the French text, the Tintin books were feature-length stories with proper plots and well defined characters. I could sort of follow the stories; they were so much better than anything produced in England. I do wonder how many others found Tintin their gateway drug to better things?

What more is there to say about Tintin? In the UK he has to be the best known of foreign language comics characters. The main criticism of the books has to be creator Herge’s racism, which is unfortunately all too apparent – especially in the earlier titles, such as Tintin au Congo.

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Tintin au Congo

He eventually came to accept there was a problem, although in his later, more “aware” books there was still a tendency towards racial stereotyping. There was also criticism of Herge for continuing to work for a Belgian newspaper that allegedly followed a collaborationist line during WWII. I’d a say a lot of people did worse; and more generally I think one just has to concede that Herge’s comics were of their time and brilliant with it. After all, it wasn’t until the late 1960s that some comics started to move ahead of society at large in terms of enlightened sensibilities. (Yes, I can defend that sweeping statement, but not here.)

When I was seventeen I started spending some of my school holidays with relatives in Paris. This opened me up to a ready supply of French cigarettes, fascinating alcoholic drinks, blues records… and a new vein of comics to mine. The first that grabbed me was Asterix the Gaul.

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Asterix and Obelix

I was an instant fan. The simple, cartoony characters belied the wit and humour of the writing; they were wonderful stories and helped me enormously in learning French. The books are well-known in the UK, and in spite of the fact that many of the original puns are untranslatable from the original French, the translators have done a very good job of replacing them.

While the creators, Goscinny and Uderzo, are guilty of a degree of racial stereotyping, they do it in a typically French chauvinistic way. They’ve got it in for everybody, and that includes themselves.

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A stereotype or two

In 1949 the French government had brought in measures restricting the import of American films and comics in order the maintain the purity of French culture. DeGaulle must’ve been delighted with Asterix. As an aside, at the height of Asterix’s popularity, an earnest journalist asked Rene Goscinny, the books’ writer, whether Asterix was a metaphor for the French A Bomb. No, Goscinny answered, it’s about Gauls bashing up Romans.

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Gratuitous Roman-bashing

Another discovery during my Paris visits, more of a slow burn initially, but subsequently of greater import, was Pilote magazine. Unlike Tintin and Asterix, which appeared in full-length, album format, Pilote featured comics of varying lengths by a variety of creators. Initially, in the early 1960s, Pilote catered for a predominantly young readership, but with the passage of time it carried comics for a more varied range of ages. Asterix was serialised in it, as was Lucky Luke, but from the late 60s and through the 70s many “grown up” comics appeared. Artists such as Philippe Druillet, Claire Bretecher and Jean Giraud (Moebius) published in Pilote before going onto grander things – plus a long, long list of others.

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A breeding ground for talent.

Pilote was another gateway drug for me – transitioning from the comics of my youth to the adult fare I’d unknowingly craved. It paved the way for the seminal moment in my comics history: seeing my first American underground comic, “Zap” (which had a similar effect on me to my first acid trip). The beauty of Pilote, along with much of the French comics scene, was that it didn’t set out to be overtly “counterculture”. Underground and overground meshed seamlessly together. Pilote eventually fizzled out in the late 1980s, but I remember it with great affection.

After leaving school my periodic visits to Paris continued. By then my sister had moved to the city (where she lived for over 25 years, working as a graphic designer), so as well as staying with my French relatives I could impose on her hospitality. One of my first ports of call in Paris would be the Left Bank book and comics shops, trawling for fresh discoveries. I was never disappointed.

Bookshops were crammed with comics albums of all sorts, for all ages. Several adult comics magazines sprang up during the late 60s and 70s, such as l’Echo des Savannes, Hara-Kiri, Psychopat, Charlie, Fluide Glacial… which featured a miscellany of characters and creators. In terms of content they could be humorous, violent, satirical, obscene, political…

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Underground comix overground.

They were underground comics but unlike in the UK, where you had to search out the few underground comics available in one or two well-hidden head-shops, here they were on display in virtually every book shop and news-kiosk across the land.

The variety was staggering, and what made the best of them stand out was that unlike the overground factory-comics system in the UK and USA , French publishers often allowed their creators complete artistic freedom. A favourite of mine was a “superhero” (I detest superheroes) called Superdupont, dedicated to the elimination of all un-French influences, who was born in Pilote and continued in Fluide Glacial, jammed by various creators.

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A bas les etrangers…

Another was Nikita Mandryka, who managed to combine surrealism, grotesqueness, cuteness and obscenity in one homogeneous mess.

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Cute, huh?

Reiser and Georges Wolinski (murdered in his 80s in the Charlie Hebdo massacre) combined deceptively crude drawing styles with slice o’ life short strips about the human condition and very incorrect sexual politics. I absolutely loved them. Their strips appeared in all the monthlies plus in collections of their own work.

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The incorrect world of Georges Wolinksi

I have to put in a mention for fantasy comics as well. They’re not my natural habitat, but the French have been immensely strong in that area and to this day fantasy fans are spoilt for choice in France. Initially a quarterly, Metal Hurlant first appeared in the early 1970s, the brainchild of Philippe Druillet, Jean Giraud and the writer Jean-Pierre Dionnet. It went on the showcase the very best in sci-fi and fantasy comics, and subsequently appeared in a USA version called Heavy Metal.

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For all fantasy and SF addicts

I’ve been a frequent visitor to France right up to the present, and I don’t suppose Brexit will stop that. I always look out for new material, but also keep an eye open for any old favourites cropping up. Anything illustrated by Jacques Tardi I grab; I simply adore his work. His career got underway in the early 1970s, but I believe he’s still working. His genres are historical and detective fiction, mixed with some fantasy, steampunk and surrealism. His hard boiled gumshoe series Nestor Burma I love, with its wonderfully evocative period backgrounds…

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The Parisian answer to Philip Marlowe.

but my favourite of his works is Ici Meme, written by Jean-Claude Forest (oddly of Barbarella fame), but uniquely Tardi’s vision. 90% surrealism and 10% political satire, it involves a displaced man who lives on top of the walls of the properties he believes he’s been cheated out of. It is both quintessentially French and other-worldly at the same time – and I’ve read it God knows how many times.

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The enigmatic Arthur Meme.

How is it that 22 miles of water separates two such utterly different comics worlds? Grudgingly I suppose it’s getting a little better in the UK. Waterstones now has small sections for graphic novels. But compare that to French bookshops and news-stands, which have comics by the train-load.

I think a main part of the difference comes from the French tradition of making album length books out of any comics character that’s learned to walk. That involves writing longer and more intricate stories. Even children’s characters such as Pif and Becassine were involved in longer stories in France, whereas in the UK kids subsisted on a diet of one and two pagers in the Beano etc. I believe that has led to a high level of comics illiteracy in the UK, plus the attitude that comics are just for kids.

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Even Becassine (nee 1905) appeared in properly structured stories.

Sure, there has been a constant supply of American material to these shores since the early 1950s, of mainly superhero-type comics (did I mention I detest superheroes?), but in my humble opinion they only add to the popular UK view that comics are for kids and overgrown spotty Herberts who will never have girlfriends. Okay – attitudes are slowly shifting – but in France comics are far more intellectually acceptable and the choice is staggering.

Worldwide, there are three major comics festivals: Comiket in Tokyo, the San Diego Comic-Con and Angouleme – a small city in south west France.

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Mecca for comics freaks.

I’ve tried to attend the Angouleme festival, but it appears you have to book at least a decade in advance to get accommodation. I’ve visited the city though, and it’s an eye-opener. It has a vast comics museum that I could happily get lost in for days, there are independent comics publishers dotted all over the city and its university runs several different courses on comics creation, illustration, history and theory… It is the city of comics…

In the land of comics. Vive les BDs!

Paul Halas’s 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, which led to five years’ political activism. He left the party two years ago with a heavy heart.

Depression # 18 by Dan Pearce

Dan Pearce

Dan Pearce has done editorial work for many magazines and newspapers including New Society, Honey, 19, Oz, The Observer, The Times and Sunday Times, Mayfair and Penthouse. Dan has created book and record covers, political cartoons, comic strips and caricatures and he has written two graphic novels: ‘Critical Mess’ (against the nuclear industry) and ‘Oscar: The Second Coming’. His labour of love is the graphic novel, ‘Depression’ which is unfinished. He lived in Andalucia and then Umbria before coming back to live in the UK in Hastings. Dan went to the Colchester School of Art and the Central School of Art and his last painting was well received at the Sussex Open.

So you want to be a comic strip writer

Story-writing for comics

By Paul Halas

It’s surprising how often I’ve been asked how one becomes a comic strip story-writer. My first reaction is usually to try to figure out if the person asking me is a, just being polite, b, gobsmacked that anyone should ever dream of entering such a bizarre profession, or c, actually interested. Anyone in the last category, read on…

There really are people who want to write for comics. I first realised this when I attended the Lucca Comics and Animation Festival (now comics and games), as a fledgling Disney comics writer back in the early 1980s. We creators were outnumbered 100-1 by all the fans and comic nerds, most of whom wanted nothing more than to be in your place. No matter that you were involved in kids’ comics, these were genuine aficionados and they were very clued-up on everything we had churned out. Writers and artists were met with a mixture of envy and awe, scripts and drawings thrust into your hand at every opportunity, as if your being a tiny cog in a great machine automatically gave you the powers of a commissioning editor.

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Comics and games festival at Lucca, Italy.

Anyone wanting to make money should stay well clear of creating comics, unless they are ready-made geniuses. In fact delete that; I know a few creators I’d class as comics geniuses, and they still don’t make big money. I’d hazard a guess that if your brain is hard-wired to creating comics it’s probably completely lacking in the personality defects that turn people into high powered CEOs or hedge fund managers. No one goes into the creative side of comics creation to make big bucks. You can do okay – I made a decent living writing comics for forty years – but the suits invariably hold all the cards, and know how to keep you just hungry enough to keep you hard at it without your telling them to shove their one-sided ‘buy-out contracts’ where the sun doesn’t shine. In the end, we comics people do what we do because we love doing it – and we’re probably ill-suited for doing anything else.

At festivals, the fans pester you with their work. No matter that it’s your jobs they’re after, and you have precious little power to help them even if you could. So what would give them a better chance of getting started?

First and foremost, one has to have a little bit of story-making flair to work with. Without it all the learned technique in the world will be of little use. The good news is that many of us don’t know we have it until we try. Raw talent can be refined; no talent means one’s talents lie elsewhere.

Get good at it. The easy part of it is reading loads of comics; no one wanting to go into the business would not be an avid comics reader to begin with. But it’s also important to read comics critically. See what the story is about, does it follow logic, are the characters in character, does it flow or is it ponderous, does it make sense, what is it about it that makes one want to keep reading, what’s the hook. Many comics are wonderfully cinematic, and others can resemble the best in TV situation comedy – when the writing and illustration are working well enough. I attended a couple of seminars on comics creation in the distant past, but felt that if you measured the benefits against all the woffle they were not a profitable use of time. The best grounding I ever had was film editing classes at film school. There I learnt about economy of visual storytelling, about economy of verbal narrative, when to pause and when to expand, about points of view, angles, continuity, all about pacing. There are numerous videos on editing in YouTube, and I have no doubt many would be useful.

Write, and keep writing. Some people use matchstick people storyboards to help them, others just visualise a finished comic in their heads. I do the latter, but the important thing is to keep the stories coming until they’re whole and satisfying. Get critiques. Other people see flaws one may be oblivious to. And if they’re too fulsome in their praise, take it with a pinch of salt. If anyone is really brilliant from the word go I hate them; it takes time and effort.

There are two ways to go for the proficient comics creator. The first is to create one’s own comic from scratch – make a brand new concept/set of characters/periodical/web-comic/graphic novel. One’s own creation. It helps enormously if the writer and illustrator are the same person, but to even stand a chance the product must be first rate. Going down this route is a brave venture, because the investment in time and effort to produce something worth showing a prospective publisher or backer – or even just popping it online – is enormous. I doff my hat to those who succeed. I’ve been down this route a few times without success, but every graphic novel to reach the book-stands has surmounted these obstacles.See the source imageThe other route is to work for an established publication or web-comic. This offers slightly fewer impediments, but is still not easy. Many of the hundreds of Disney comics fans I met would have loved to work for the magazine, and would get frustrated and sometimes resentful at meeting a what seemed to be a brick wall. There are ways of shortening the odds, whether it be for Disney or any other comics.

First of all, don’t go in half baked. It should go without saying, but I’m still saying it and for good reason. If one wants to write for say, DC Comics, get to know the comics in question through and through. Know everything about the characters, what they do in any situations, the universe they exist in, know all the rules. Immerse oneself in it. A commissioning editor will sniff out anything that doesn’t jive instantly, and won’t make any allowances. They will have scores of better options battering down their door.

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(That I’m able to pontificate on this is down to the most outrageous good luck. When I “auditioned” for Disney comics in the late 1970s the Swedish editors who ran the rule over me forgave a poor, very undercooked first attempt at a Disney story because at the time they were recruiting established UK sit-com writers who didn’t know the Disney universe very well. They gave me a second try, for which I made sure I was much better prepared. That would not happen now.)

To approach a commissioning editor one must know one’s stuff inside out. Read the comics and find out everything possible about who is publishing or producing them. By all means swot up on the normal channels for submitting work to editors, but forging personal connections really gets you ahead of the game. Do go to the festivals and conventions. Schmooze people shamelessly (but don’t expect many favours from fellow writers. Go above their heads). Make contacts and nurture them. I know that a lot of us don’t find it all that easy, because many of us story writers are not only hopeless at business, but hopelessly introverted too. That’s why we read comics and sit at home writing. But making contacts is the way to go. One has to earmark the people with with the power to give you a chance, but don’t pass up chances to create contacts – even ones that don’t look initially promising. Unlikely contacts can lead you to unlikely places. It was through getting outrageously drunk with an American science fiction novelist that I was given an introduction to the Swedish Disney editors. Work on the skills, work on the contacts, and work on getting that stroke of luck. And it’ s best not to get outrageously drunk when one’s writing. It only seems a work of genius at the time.

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.

#10 Depression

Ars Notoria is pleased to present episode 10 of Dan Pearce’s groundbreaking graphic novel, Depression.

Dan Pearce

Dan has written two graphic novels. One of them, called Critical Mess, was against nuclear power and the most recent is Oscar: The Second Coming. Dan is a painter, he has always painted and the last time he exhibited was at Sussex Open in 2017. His Labour of love is a graphic novel called Depression which is unfinished. Dan lived in Andalucia and Umbria for 18 years before coming back to England to live in Hastings.




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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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