The role of the dole in the British Invasion
Two recent books, Alan Moore: Storyteller (which my wife was lucky enough to win from this site) and Grant Morrison’s Supergods, have re-sparked a question I’ve had regarding the connection between England’s social welfare system and the Eighties invasion of American comics by British writers and artists. There’s no doubt there were several factors, with perhaps the emergence, in the late Seventies, of comics magazines such as 2000 A.D., Warrior, the Marvel U.K. line being especially important. But the most intriguing factor? The dole.
So what is my hypothesis? That comic book artists such as Alan Moore and Grant Morrison would not exist without having had the benefit of being supported for several years by the British unemployment benefits system, otherwise known as “the dole,” thus giving them time to develop their skills such that they could survive without the dole.
Alan Moore: Storyteller:
Moore left the financial security of the office job [in 1977] and signed on at the Department of Health and Social Security for unemployment benefits. (p. 44)
Grant Morrison’s Supergods:
Perhaps at last, this [ie, superhero comics as represented especially by Alan Moore's version of Marvelman, which first appeared in 1982] could be a way of making enough money to quit the dole and get noticed doing something I loved. (p. 186)
At twenty-four ,… I was still on the dole and living at home… (p. 208)
I do not know if Morrison and Moore are typical or exceptions, but I’m leaning towards their being representative of the writers and artists who constituted the British Invasion of American comics in the Eighties. The unemployment system in the USA in the Eighties did not allow anyone to continue collecting benefits for several years and, unlike Alan Moore’s case, it was not possible to obtain benefits after quitting or refusing a job. Another requirement was to have worked (on the books) for a certain number of weeks during the previous x number of months. In other words, to qualify for unemployment benefits in the USA, you had to have been employed a minimum amount of time, laid off (not fired), provide proof every other week of looking for work during the previous two weeks, and, even if you could not find a job, after a period of about six months the benefits would cease. The British system appears to have been very different.
Imagine an Earth-2 where Great Britain had no unemployment benefits. Would Alan Moore and Grant Morrison have been able to become Alan Moore and Grant Morrison without the benefit of the dole?
Most of the innovations in British popular music which happened between the 60s and the 90s would have been unthinkable without the indirect funding provided by social housing, unemployment benefit and student grants.
Above is from “Time-Wars” by Mark Fisher. If what he says is true for British music, why not comics?
1. Is there any significance to Morrison mistakenly calling the Quay Brothers English (they’re American):
I had a lot to prove, and I wanted to make my mark. Arkham Asylum would be dense, symbolic, interior–a deliberate response to the prevailing current of Hollywood realism. Instead of Orson Welles, Alfred Hitchcock, Scorsese, and Roeg, we’d be influenced by Crowley, Jung, Artaud and Marat/Sade, by the Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer, and by his English disciples, the Brothers Quay. (Supergods p. 225)
2. I don’t have much love for Morrison’s post-Doom Patrol work, feeling it works on a lower level, so I was interested to learn how he re-created himself after his run on that title ended:
I’d already made my mind up to accept complete surrender to a process of transformation, an ego-dissolving ordeal that I felt sure would give me new things to write about, new things to say, and a new way to see the world. (Supergods p. 253)
As I brought Doom Patrol to a close after four years of monthly surrealist folderol, Lonely Planet guides were being spread on the carpet to help map out a year away from comics and routine.
I plotted an immense path around the world via India, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore, Java, Bali, Australia, Fiji, Los Angeles, and New Mexico before coming home, I hoped, transformed. (Supergods p. 254)
On my first night in the dull hotel near the airport, I celebrated this personal rebirth by taking an electric razor to hair that was undeniably thinning. (Supergods p. 254)
Back home, I felt reborn, more confident, creative, and alive than ever before. (Supergods p. 255)
In other words, after reading the above passages, I learned that there is a good reason for my feeling that Morrison’s post-Doom Patrol work does not seem to be by the same person.
3. There have been some who have taken issue with a statement Morrison made while promoting the book which suggests that he had little sympathy with Siegel & Shuster as creators who were ripped off by DC:
From Siegel and Shuster through later chapters on Kirby or Jim Starlin, you cover a lot of the creative life of the people behind comics and how one informs the other, and you make some particular observations about Siegel and Shuster’s desires as artists as well as professionals. There’s so much chatter over the lawsuits over Superman and what not, but for you, did you feel like the characters transcend some of those debates on their own terms, or is that creative personality something that informs how our whole industry works even to today?
Well, to me it’s never been honestly what’s interesting about this stuff. I think the stories outlast all of those complications. You look at the people who created those characters, and they’re all dead. But the characters will still be around in 50 years probably – at least the best of them will. So I try not to concern myself with that. These are deals made in times before I was even born. I can say from experience that young creative people tend to sell rights to things because they want to get noticed. They want to sell their work and to be commercial. Then when they grow up and get a bit smarter, they suddenly realize it maybe wasn’t so good and that the adults have it real nice. [Laughs] But still, it’s kind of the world. I wouldn’t want to comment on that because it was something I wasn’t around for. I can’t tell why they decided to do what they did. Obviously Bob Kane came in at the same age and got a very different deal and profited hugely from Batman’s success. So who knows? They were boys of the same age, but maybe some of them were more keen to sell the rights than others. It all just takes a different business head.
However, there are passages in Supergods that makes it clear that Morrison views the relationship of comic book company and creators, of yesterday as well as today, as being one of exploitation:
The parasitic relationship of universe to creator that saw the rebellions of people like Siegel and Shuster or Jack Kirby had become a little more symbiotic; following changes in the business in the eighties, creative people adding to the DC or Marvel universe would be ripped off with a little more reward on the back end. (Supergods p. 118)
And many pages later:
Superhero stories are sweated out at the imagined lowest levels of our culture, but like that shard off a hologram, they contain at their hearts all the dreams and fears of generations in vivid miniature. Created by a workforce that has in its time been marginalized, mocked, scapegoated, and exploited, they never failed to offer a direct line to the cultural subconscious and its convulsions. (Supergods p. 416
Note the words: “parasitic,” “ripped off,” “exploited.” He’s saying that the comic book companies are parasites who not only ripped off Siegel & Shuster years ago, but are still ripping off comic book creators today.
So why didn’t Morrison say this in the interview? Perhaps because he works for DC and is smart enough to know what he should say and not say when the subject of the current Superman lawsuit comes up. Do you really think these companies would continue to employ him if he said what they consider to be the wrong thing? No wonder he says: “So I try not to concern myself with that.” Is Morrison the only one who realizes that if we want to make a lot of money, it’s best not to bite the hand that feeds us?
UPDATE APRIL 23, 2012
An example of what happens when you speak out and “bite the hand that feeds you” came up recently when writer Chris Roberson publicly criticized DC Comics:
What did he say? Pretty much what people accused Morrison of not saying.
As I said, Morrison (as well as many others) have been “smart” enough not to say what they really think because they want to keep their gigs. (If you think that you don’t do similar things, you must live in a far better world than I.)
4. But Morrison is not without contradictions:
I stopped piling up rationalizations and instead dealt with what could be proven about this event, which was its undeniably positive effect on my life. Kathmandu fundamentally reprogrammed me and left me with a certainty stronger than faith that everything, even that which was sad and painful, was happening exactly the way it was supposed to.
All will be well, all will be well, and all manner of things will be well. (Supergods p. 278)
Unfortunately, this is the kind of thinking that has been favored by the powers that be throughout history because it can be used to justify any atrocity. If Batman or Superman thought like this, why would they bother with anything that The Joker or Lex Luthor did?
5. Near the end of the section in which Morrison recounts his encounter with a Superman cosplayer at San Diego Comic-Con late one night in 1999, he says:
By choosing to frame my encounter as a pop-shamanic vision quest yielding pure contact with embodied archetypal forces, I got much more out of it than if I’d simply sat there with Dan sniggering at the delusional fool in tights. By telling myself a very specific story about what was occurring, I was able to benefit artistically, financially, and I like to think spiritually, in a way that perhaps might not have been possible had I simply assumed that our Superman was a convention “cosplayer.” (Supergods p. 404)
Morrison is not unique in this by a longshot, but the idea of looking at everything in terms of how it can be converted into a paycheck is more than a little off-putting. If Morrison was exploited, it seems he did his own bit of exploitation. The above passage is just one of several in the book in which Morrison talks about how he could exploit his experiences for financial gain. A big one is his Kathmandu experience:
The next day, Ulric and I flew home via Frankfurt, where I locked myself n an airport hotel room to fill dozens of journal pages with my attempts to describe what had just happened to me in Nepal. If nothing else, I was left with enough ideas for comic books to keep me working for another fifty years. (Supergods p. 274; my emphasis)
In an imagination economy, where ideas, trademarks, and intellectual property held incalculable value, the coruscating quarry face of the interior world was the place to be. There was gold in them thar ghost mines. (Supergods p. 280)
The second passage above comes after several paragraphs in which he describes the Kathmandu experience as a mystical experience, so it’s a bit jarring when he comes back to Earth thinking of how it will affect his bank account. Throughout the book, he comes back to money again and again in this way. Perhaps it’s part of a conscious strategy by Morrison to contrast the sacred with the profane aspects of human life, but it makes Morrison appear to be interested foremost in whether his experiences will convert to money in the comic book marketplace. It’s ultimately a vision of life in which humans are constantly interacting with the world and each other foremost with an eye towards financial exploitation. Perhaps this is the curse of the commercial artist in our society, but it nevertheless places Morrison closer to Supervillains than Supergods.
6. I’ve heard Morrison tell his Kathmandu story in person. The version in the book comes across differently. Besides being more detailed and without the benefit of his Scottish accent, there are two big differences. First, the written version lacks the humor Morrison brings to it when presenting it to a room full of his admirers. Second, the book lacks a story that Morrison appears to use for dramatic contrast. After he tells the Kathmandu story, he tells how he accidentally swallowed a ring and ends up going through his bowel movement in a sink to retrieve it. On the one hand, you have the story of the sacred in Kathmandu; on the other hand, you have a story of the profane which takes place in the W.C. That is, he tells two stories which represent the two aspects of being human. He uses this method in the book when he follows up the story about the Superman cosplayer with one about a Bizarro cosplayer, but not for the Kathmandu story. Why?
7. My favorite line in Supergods? This:
The San Diego Comic-Con is an event that everyone should experience at least once. It’s a big rehearsal for tomorrow, where Second Life becomes real. (Supergods p 373; my emphasis.)
“It’s a big rehearsal for tomorrow.” I nominate that for the Con slogan.