Tuesday, April 9, 2013

The Great Influence of the Late Margaret Thatcher on Modern Comics

Maggie bought the farm yesterday, and I doubt that Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano, Brendan McCarthy, or any of the UK comic writers who emerged in the mainstream in the 1980s are doing much grieving. In fact, a great deal of those writer's early work is a direct result of living under Margaret Thatcher's rule, a contentious era of upheaval which helped earn her nickname of "The Iron Lady." When sifting through the sanctimonious epitaphs that are sure to appear in newspapers and news programs between now and her funeral remember that Prime Minister Thatcher called Nobel Peace Prize winner Nelson Mandela "a terrorist."

Here in the USA, Thatcher's allegiance to Ronald Reagan earned her much higher praise than she received in her own country. Of course the nightly American newscast didn't feature the constant hunger strikes, worker strikes, public rioting and general dissent that festered in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and throughout the British Isles in response to her poll tax, union busting, state-supported terror tactics and racially and economically divisive politics. While American punks blasted anti-Thatcher anthems from their Japanese boom boxes, comprehension of the British condition remained nearly non-existent. While the Clash, Elvis Costello, and U2 penned song after song attacking The Baroness to the wider pop audience, the severity of British austerity was largely lost on Americans. Her deregulation of the markets, privatization of the dockyards, and general lack of sympathy for the working class left a legacy of unemployment and heroin addiction.

But comic book fans got the straight dope from the source.

Readers of Alan Moore's V for Vendetta got a stark dose of anti-thatcherism. Moore exposed the homophobic Section 28 Law that vaguely forbade the publication or presentation of any materials that promote homosexuality. V's Larkhill Resettlement Camp is a fascistic, nightmare scenario of what many feared would be the next step. The totalitarian government presented in his groundbreaking anarchists tale is very much modeled on Thatcher's Tory party. The extent of terror-state interrogation techniques allowed by British Police remains mostly unknown to the majority of Americans–even those who read about them in V, who perhaps thought it part of the fictional aspects of the story. The anti-establishment aspects of V for Vendetta would become more prominent and more polarized in Moore's Watchmen, which featured graffiti silhouettes like Banksy's long before most people were aware of him. Banksy's most popular image of a scarfed man throwing a tear gas cannister is, itself,  straight out of the era of the Brixton Riots.  

Moore also wrote Maggie into his Miracleman/Marvelman series in issue 16, where she scoffs at the idea of market interference. It's hard to believe after the economic collapse of 2008 that the dangers of deregulation had been outlined in a superhero comic book released back in December 1989. The hero's sympathy for the aged leader in spite of her obtuse uncompromising nature is prophetic of what many Brits and most Americans saw on their televisions last night. Moore foresaw the pending candy-coating over two decades ago, not that it was so difficult to predict. The visibly shaken Thatcher depicted by American artist John Totleben in the sixth panel on the page appears moved to tears, which is consistent with reports of her state upon exiting Downing Street almost a year later following her resignation from office on November, 22 1990. Moore completists will note that Thatcher's resignation took place a mere seventeen days after Guy Fawkes Night.

Grant Morrison's visionary and rarely seen St. Swithin's Day features an assassination publicity stunt with Thatcher as the intended target. In the UK, it is illegal to depict the assassination of any actual politician in any form–satire included, so Morrison had to be very clever about the motive of his young protagonist, who in the final frame threatens her with... his finger. Morrison's Scotland was the most heavily hit by Thatch, who swept like a wrecking ball through the mines, the steel industry, the car factories, shipbuilding and engineering and oversaw the demise of the communities which had built their livelihoods around them. The poverty there was rivaled only by Northern Ireland, which held a particular Ire for the PM. Morrison would also present an unfavorable vision of Margaret in his Dare, in which Gloria Monday colludes with the Mekon for a karmic demise.

Jamie Delano criticized Thatcher's "Help yourself society" amidst satanic stockbrokers in the third issue of Hellblazer. I remember reading that series as a teen, thinking, "Wow, this is really British!" Years later while reading Canadian author Dave Sim's Cerebus: Jaka's Story I realized just how disliked Margaret Thatcher was everywhere but in the USA. By the time the Spitting Image puppeteers lampooned her, her poll numbers were so low that they might have actually helped her image. When rock band Genesis utilized the puppets in their Land of Confusion video, it succeeded in creating a buffoonery that undercut the reality of nuclear catastrophe that warhawks Reagan and Thatcher almost led us into.

So when I say "influence," I mean it in the same way that Adolph Hitler influenced Art Spiegelman's Maus. Go on, Maggie–and good riddance!

Special acknowledgment to Rich Johnston at Bleeding Cool for some of the images featured on this page.

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