Tony Black talks exclusively to Greg Carpenter, writer of The British Invasion: Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison and the Invention of the Modern Comic Book Writer (read our review here), about his book and the comic-book industry past, present and future…
What served as the inspiration for writing a book about Moore, Gaiman & Morrison?
I sometimes think I’ve been writing this book for most of my life. From childhood on, we all have things that obsess us, and I think the process of ruminating on those obsessions—Marvel vs. DC, the awfulness of Jar Jar Binks, whether Barry Bonds should be in the Hall of Fame—I think that process is essentially like writing a book. The difference is that with most of those obsessions, we never actually put pen to paper (or fingertip to keypad). Instead, we just write those books in our dreams where they are quietly shelved by Lucien in the Sandman’s library.
But I wanted more than that for The British Invasion. I felt like this book could actually do something besides simply fuel my own obsessions. The book was an opportunity to share ideas and observations on the art of comics, on the changes that have occurred in the industry over the last quarter century, and on some of the reasons comics culture has moved from the fringe to the mainstream in recent years.
I felt like the answer to a lot of those questions could be found in the work of Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, and Grant Morrison, and that was something I wanted other people to see as well.
Which of the work from these three writers do you personally feel had the most impact? The book suggests you may feel From Hell could be the apex of the form…
Hmmm. I think a lot of it has to do with how we ultimately define the word “impact.” Are we talking about which work has impacted the comics community the most? Which has impacted the world outside the comics community? Or are we talking about a more subjective sense of which work is “best?” Do the answers change depending on how we define the question? Sometimes yes and sometimes no.
Take Neil Gaiman, for instance. Sandman became the template for the creator-driven, multi-volume comic book series, so it clearly impacted the comics community more than his other work. Sandman also had a profound impact on the world outside of comics in terms of the Goth movement, fashion, hairstyles, and such. And, personally, I think it’s probably his best comics work (although Mr. Punch is awfully impressive). So for Gaiman, the answer to all three is probably Sandman.
But the answers don’t overlap as neatly when talking about Alan Moore or Grant Morrison. In Moore’s case, it’s hard to see anything that had more impact on the comics community than Marvelman/Miracleman, but for impact on the world at large, I think V for Vendetta is in a league of its own. Yet, both Watchmen and especially From Hell are probably more impressive in their execution.
The same thing is true with Grant Morrison. His JLA run from the ‘90s influenced almost every superhero team book for more than a decade, but his anarchic Invisibles has spoken to more people outside of the comics community, I think. And yet, for my money, his best-written and most impressive book is Flex Mentallo.
So there you go. You asked for one title and I just gave you, um … nine.
Had these writers not created the projects they did, how do you think the modern comics industry would have ended up?
Wow, that’s such an impossible question. Totally fair, but totally impossible. Would other creators have ultimately done similar things as these three? It’s possible, although unless they were coming from outside the American industry in some way—as the British writers were—it’s hard to imagine them bringing the same radical perspective.
I guess if I had to speculate, I would imagine that without the British Invasion, American comic books in the ‘80s would’ve suffered the same sense of superficial slickness that defined so much of the culture in that era. As a child of the ‘80s, I always felt like that guy in The Graduate who told Dustin Hoffman to remember one word in the future—“Plastics”—had gotten it right. The ‘80s felt like a plastic decade. Music, movies, television shows, fashion … even the political sentiments seemed covered in a plastic veneer.
One of the few areas where that wasn’t true was comics. Mainstream comics were undergoing a revolution not unlike the American film industry in the ‘70s. So what happens if you take away people like Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison? My hunch is comics would’ve gone the way of synthesizer-rock music and parachute pants, if that makes any sense.
What do you make of the industry three decades on from where these writers began? Is it in robust health or does it need another ‘invasion’?
I think the invasion is already happening and it has to do with the changing demographics of both the people reading comics and the people making them. It’s no secret that after decades of stereotypes, we’re finally seeing a tidal wave of women readers and creators who are making a tremendous impact on the art form.
Of course, “invasion” isn’t really the right word to use in this case. It carries negative connotations which is fine when it’s used tongue-in-cheek to talk about rock music in the ‘60s or comics in the ‘80s, but given the open hostility so many women have had to deal with—especially online—we should call it something different than an “invasion.” But to answer your question, if I were looking for a sector of the comics industry where something similar to the British Invasion is taking place, where fresh talent is bringing a different sensibility and a different aesthetic to comics, I would look to the growing ranks of women creators in the industry. I think that’s one of the most exciting changes we’re seeing, and it’s happening now.
Would you be interested in covering other major comic book figures in such detail? Frank Miller perhaps, some of the other major creative forces of the 80’s?
There are many, many creators who would warrant a similar study. But the decision to write such a book depends on additional factors beyond just the merit of the creator in question. For me, writing a book like this takes a tremendous commitment of time and energy, and it means keeping someone else’s voice in my head for a long, long time. In that way, it’s almost like choosing a roommate. I was lucky because the three writers I needed to write about—Moore, Gaiman, and Morrison—were also pleasant voices to keep in my consciousness. I never tired of researching them, reading their interviews, or poring over their work. In that sense, they were a good fit.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying, yes there are others I’d like to write about, but I do tend to be very picky.
Many thanks to Greg Carpenter for taking the time for this interview.. His book is now available to buy.
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