Comics are at a pivotal point in the history of their genre. Not only are they experiencing a new surge in popularity due to their high-profile media representations (think The Big Bang Theory and The Avengers), but technological advances and new forms such as graphic novels and motion comics are questioning the very future of comic books as we know them. This context led to a thought-provoking evening at the Pitt Rivers with David Lloyd, the artist behind such iconic comics and characters as Marvel’s Night Raven (in Hulk Comic, 1979), V for Vendetta (1988-1989), and Kickback (2006). Brought to the museum by the Edgar Wind Society for Art History and the TORCH Comics and Graphic Novels Network, the event addressed notions such as freedom, technology, anarchy, and creativity – arguably important issues not just for comics, but also for today’s society as a whole.
Dominic Davis, the TORCH Comics and Graphic Novels Network coordinator, and Andy McLellan, Head of Education at the Pitt Rivers Museum, conducted a three-part interview before offering the floor to audience members. The lecture hall was packed with an extremely diverse audience, comprised of everything from Art History students to anthropologists, to literature and comic book fanatics. All this combined to produce a great mix of questions covering not only Lloyd’s career but also deeper topics connected to his work, such as symbolism, representation and oppression. Lloyd spoke passionately and honestly about his body of work and made a great case for what you might call his raison d’être: comic book artists should have the freedom and integrity to tell stories that they truly care about. It is only then that stories can resonate as powerfully with audiences as V for Vendetta continues to do. “Art is an adventure… Every artist everywhere has a story to tell. Freedom is key [to that].”
After the interview concluded, as a very nice touch, Pitt Rivers representative Andy McLellan invited the audience out into the museum to explore the artefacts associated with the discussion. Putting paid to any concerns about the connection between an ethnographic museum like the Pitt Rivers and comic books, he gave a brief introduction to specific items in the museum that show a direct link between comic books and anthropology: the Papua New Guinean battle shields that have paintings of comic book vigilante The Phantom depicted on them. While to the Papua New Guineans the character of The Phantom was a fitting symbol for moral uprightness and success on the battlefield, their choice to paint him on their shields also shows just how important visual culture could be in bridging cultural divides.
Whereas Lloyd began his career in comics out of a practical realisation that he had a flair for creating great comic book art, stories such as Ron Embleton’s Wrath of the Gods (1963-1964), an adventure series rooted in classical mythology, showed him the potential of the medium to build fantastic and believable worlds as vast and complex as those seen on screen. However, it wasn’t until he was invited to work on the independent comic book Warrior by ex-Marvel UK editor Dez Skinn in 1982 that he truly realised the importance of artistic freedom in creating the best stories. “Dez couldn’t offer to pay industry standard, so instead offered ownership of our creations and artistic freedom… It was all about artistically freeing yourself, having the freedom to tell the stories that you wanted to tell”. And so V, the freedom fighter protagonist of V for Vendetta, was born. The subsequent popularity of the series ensured that Lloyd would forevermore swear to trust his instincts, telling the stories that he felt he needed to tell.
Of course, with all this talk of freedom and artistic integrity, you might think that the future of the comic book is an easily definable thing: the key to success for comic book artists is to tell the truthful and relevant stories that they need to tell. However, as Lloyd recognised himself, technological advances in the genre, such as increasingly more realistic digital art and a move towards motion comics and away from traditional paper sources, have made it a lot more complicated than that. But rather than worrying about it, he’s embracing the future, dedicating his time now to publishing a digital-only weekly comic book series called Aces — digital is, as he sees it, the future of the genre. While Lloyd would be the first to admit that the move to digital publishing is slow in the uptake due to collectors prioritising the page over the screen, if we learned anything from this event it’s that you need to create the works you believe in, and this, for him, is one of them.
Lloyd artfully used the evening to address a variety of topics suitable for the diversity of his audience. From learned advice for aspiring comic book artists (such as always keeping a bit of money in your account to allow yourself time to choose the next job carefully) to suppositions on how V for Vendetta continues to influence notions of freedom and anarchy in the present day (what with groups such as Anonymous still using V’s Guy Fawkes mask), it was clear how passionate he still is about his work. The topic of the Guy Fawkes mask was a particularly intriguing one, given the ‘killer clown’ phenomenon currently sweeping the UK media. Masks are another area in which the worlds of comic books and anthropology overlap. Where there have been humans, there have been masks – the Pitt Rivers proves this in their display of walls full of masks from various cultures around the world. And what does Lloyd think of all of this? While he may be immensely proud that V’s Guy Fawkes mask is still being used in the fight for good, he’s quick to come down hard on those who use masks not to incite change, but for their own stupidity or as a scare tactic (the aforementioned clowns being a pet hate of his). “[The mask is for me] a symbol of protest against tyranny of any kind… [the people that wear the mask] are trying to do the best they can to fight against oppression and I support that.” But just because part of a mask’s job is to obscure the face, says Lloyd, that doesn’t mean it obscures the person behind it. “I actually think it gives people an identity”. An individual with a mask? Certainly food for thought.
On the eve that Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature one can only wonder if a comic book artist might ever win it. If, like Lloyd, comic book artists commit to telling the thought-provoking stories that really need to be told, challenging the status quo while pushing the boundaries of the medium, we might just see it happen in the not too distant future.
Shannon Jade Wilson
The Edgar Wind Society for Art History, TORCH Comics and Graphic Novels Network and the Pitt Rivers Museum run various events throughout the year. Head to their websites to find out more about their work and to sign up to their mailing lists.