If you can’t take a joke, you can piss off
Rereading The New Adventures of Hitler by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell.
When comics become successful, they start moving out of comics. And that’s weird, isn’t it? It doesn’t happen in any other medium. Popstars don’t have hit singles so successful they no longer have to release singles. Occasional novelists move from books to screenplays, like Alex Garland, but there are others reasons lurking behind that. The only other area I can imagine it happening is poetry, where any measure of popular recognition moves the poet from poetry-centred publications to magazines and newspapers, and that parallel is there because poetry’s also published into a ghetto.
Daniel Clowes doesn’t do Eightball anymore because he can get published in The New Yorker. Adrian Tomine, Chris Ware, Seth, Joe Sacco have moved beyond the comic shops and comics fandom to literary publication and critical success. They no longer have to market to a small, fervent readership; they have casual readers, who enjoy their serialisation in The New York Times Magazine or their books or the occasional piece in a short story collection. They’ve reached a mass audience. They can be come across; they don’t have to be sought out.
This has happened before. Back in the 90s, comics were appearing in arty magazines. They’d left the music weeklies, the scene that Eddie Campbell lovingly documents in How To Be An Artist, and jumped to the fashion scene; The Face ran Gaiman and McKean’s Signal To Noise, GQ ran Miller and Bisley’s Bad Boy, Metal Hammer published Wagner and Bisley’s Heavy Metal Dredd. And Cut, a Scottish arts magazine which I’ve only heard of in the context of this strip, decided to publish some of these cool new graphic novel comics and commissioned Morrison and Yeowell’s The New Adventures of Hitler.
Creating comics for a mass audience, however, poses the creators with questions they’ve not been asked or answered before. Who are you? Are you representing yourself here, or all of comics? Do you want to show off some of the flashy stuff the medium can do, or do you want to keep it simple so as not to alienate your new readers? Will they be familiar with the vocabulary, the grammar, the tropes of the medium? When all the barriers of commercial comics and the limitations of the fanboy audience are removed, are you left naked and stuttering, awed and confused by your unexpected freedom?
On the evidence, comics have failed to answer those questions persuasively. Dan Clowes’s Mister Wonderful, serialised in the aforementioned New York Times Magazine, is by far the least of his recent works. Diluted and perfunctory, it’s Clowes doing a Clowes pastiche, like a new single by a legendary reformed band attempting to synthesise what once flowed naturally. Seth’s George Sprott, from the same magazine, sticks rigidly to talking heads with none of the imaginative verve of his sketchbook work. The amorphous audience, the sense that a usually sure-footed creator is lost because they no longer know who they’re taking to, leaves the work floundering.
For Grant Morrison, whose career progressed through the traditional genres of sci-fi and superheroes, it must have been an even tougher ask. When you’re used to subverting, to writing an all-action story on the surface and layering what you want to say underneath, it’s even more exposing to be without the crutches of the genre and the tropes. Hitler came at a point when he was writing Animal Man and Doom Patrol, simultaneously honouring and subverting their genres and history, but also when he was breaking out; an award-winning playwright at the Edinburgh Festival, a short monologue story with Dave McKean, the indie-boy miserablist romp St Swithin’s Day for Trident, his talent spreading its wings.
Why Morrison chose the apocryphal visit of Hitler to Liverpool – claimed by Hitler’s half-brother’s estranged wife, and never believed – as the subject of his story is puzzling. It’s of a piece with his plays, which were about Lewis Carroll and Alistair Crowley respectively, and perhaps this began as a play. It would be doable as a play, an hour-long one with no set and a spine of monologue. (Monologue via captions link most of the serious comics works produced for mass audience magazines mentioned above. It’s a guiding hand for anyone unfamiliar with the medium.) The voice of Hitler, a petulant, naïve, resentful, and peculiarly deranged young man, carries the narrative; we want to hear more from him. It takes us through encounters with John Bull, stalking trolleybuses, family arguments. The voice only fails when foreshadowing. When we see glimpses of the Hitler to come, when he outlines his plans to take over a country, it doesn’t convince. But that’s the fault of history. These ineffectual dreaming idiots, Hitler and his paintings and Lenin and his pamphlets, were not convincing leaders of revolutions or architects of mass murder. They became them anyway.
What exactly is The New Adventures of Hitler? The references to comics’ history end with the pulpy title. It’s simply presented in rectangular panels, between six and four on a page and four on most pages, in four-page episodes. Morrison has an idea, linking Hitler’s supposed sojourn in England with the myth of the Holy Grail, exactly the sort of crazy apocrypha the young Adolf used to believe. And he had the voice. But he doesn’t really have anything for Hitler to do. He doesn’t get on with his hosts particularly well, he doesnt speak the language, he has delusions, he meets John Bull and gets a lesson in tabloid Britishness, a crash course in the sense of innate superiority that builds an empire. He meets a spiritualist and changes his moustache from Classic Prussian to Toothbrush, soon to be renamed after him. He meets John Bull again and finds his Grail, an overflowing toilet of ordure in a fishmonger’s shop. (Historical inaccuracy: would an ordinary shop have had an inside toilet a century ago? Unlikely.) And he departs for Germany, his destiny confirmed.
The thesis, then, is that Hitler learnt to be a tyrant from the English. And, like the oft-repeated factoid that concentration camps were developed in the British Empire during the Boer War, there’s probably something in it. But it’s a thesis only glancingly developed; Hitler already seems to have his ambitions and even his methods in place before his revelation, and any other lessons learned come direct from a John Bull invisible to others. The narrative, 48 pages long, spends its time on all kinds of other diversions: the haunting trolleybus, the singing men in the wardrobe, flashbacks to an abusive father, petty arguments between Adolf and Alois. And you’re glad it does, because it’s in these off-key moments, these strange collisions between imagined history and flights of fancy, that the comic really shines. There’s no reason for the passengers on the bus to sing “Hitler has only got one ball,” but the sight of him fleeing down a deserted, snow-thick street thinking “How? How did they know?” is delicious. Likewise the presentation of a torn and repaired map to his half-brother, the sight of the familiar figure of fear and laughter emerging from shadows in a mirror, the discovery of John Lennon, head shaved post-heroin, singing the last song he ever made that mattered in an Edwardian wardrobe. The story should have been a character study. It might have been planned as a character study. But all the madness around the edges undermine the weight of its subject, the innate sobriety of its central character, and it takes flight.
Steve Yeowell, one of Morrison’s few regular collaborators, is a perfect artist for a non-comics audience. Brilliantly simple, clear storytelling that’s at the same time beautiful, his heavy blacks and his incredible use of white space making a stage of the page. But nobody’s ever known how to colour Yeowell. Fill in the gaps, like a traditional colourist, and his art becomes too obvious. Model with colouring and you’re undermining the calligraphic subtlety of the lines. A colouring team variously billed as The Spock Whitney Quartet, Brian, Dougall and Mr Rusty, Your Mum, and in the final issue as Nick Abadzis, Steve Whitaker and John Buckle take another approach; let’s use this as an extra layer of information. The colour layer comprises of paisley wallpaper patterns, photographs, ink floating on water, anything and everything. When necessary there are scenes or people picked out, but otherwise it’s a kaleidoscope of confusion, impossible-to-decipher images, tones chose without any sympathy for the art they underlay. Occasionally there are beats of synchronisation like Thatcher’s face, a pair of tits, a sky full of bombers. But mainly it’s used for tone, another off-kilter element that boosts the story into the sky.
I’d previously thought that The New Adventures of Hitler wasn’t run in Cut magazine at all, that they’d refused to publish it, and that it appeared for the first time in Crisis. According to the scant information on the internet that isn’t the case; it appeared in Cut for an unspecified period but wasn’t completed after controversy which included Pat Kane of Scottish pop duo Hue & Cry raising a hue and cry. I can’t establish whether it was pulled or the magazine folded, but either way it was unfinished until it was reprinted and completed in Crisis. Originally a 12-part serial of four-page instalments, it ended up shoved into three issues. Though it was owned by its authors, as a limited company named Snobbery With Violence, it’s never appeared anywhere else.
There doesn’t seem to be any reason why comics run in magazines always fail to find a readership, why that’s a rule, why it happens time and time again, but it does. Jamie Hewlett’s Tank Girl was a crossover success, his Gorillaz sell music and books and Converse trainers, but Get The Freebies in The Face is a forgotten failure. Faced with failure, Grant Morrison retreated from crossover works and abandoned self-publishing to be a companyman writing superheroes and his own brand of surreal high action for DC and Marvel. As a fan who believes comics should reach a wider audience it’s tempting to condemn him for that. But compare his career in the 90s and 00s to Alan Moore, who tried self-publishing, graphic novels from book publishers, appearing in friends’ anthologies, working with the Image crowd, starting his own imprint and all the rest, and there’s no doubt who had it easier.
Hitler stands almost alone in Morrison’s canon, an experiment in writing stamped flat by commercial reality. If abandoning the dominant business model brings neither fame, fortune or critical success, if it means you produce a fine piece of work that’s lost almost as soon as it’s published, that grasps once for an audience before going under forever, then what are the advantages? It isn’t easy to make it as an artist, whatever the era, and failure can sour a person on art for good. The young Adolf also learned that.
The New Adventures of Hitler by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell was published in unspecified issues of Cut and in Crisis #46 – #49. It has never been reprinted, so I’m making it available for download here.