In the UK, we cartoonists, perhaps with two exceptions (no more), are artistic pariahs. The lone arts programme on independent terrestrial television, The South Bank Show, now cancelled, was more likely to feature a dancing-bear as an artist, than a cartoonist. Like Newsnight Review, our "other" arts programme, from the BBC, The South Bank Show figured there were maybe two or three cartoonists in the UK, Ronald Searle (living in France), Scarfe, and Posey. They are, of course, two very different sorts of arts programme, The South Bank show, chaired by Melvin Bragg, focused on one artist or movement at a time, whilst the BBC programme consists of a panel of arty-types, almost always journalists, poets, authors, or sculptures, curiously enough. Think, the London/Notting Hill village and you will have a mental picture of the usual panelists.
Newsnight Review is more of an arts magazine, and more like the French model of discursive TV, and it constantly reviews movies and TV shows based on comic book characters. Now, you might think that on the odd occasion the show actually does feature the work of cartoonists that it might have the odd cartoonist on the panel discussing the merits of the work, but no, it just doesn't happen. In fact, I have my doubts that the researchers even realise that much of the material these poets and journalists and sculptures review is written and drawn by UK cartoonists. As I said, we cartoonists are the pariahs of the arts world.
The position of cartoonists in the UK is solidified by the absence of cartoonists and cartoons not just from Britain's art shows on TV, and newspapers and magazines (with obvious exceptions), but also from artistic debates, art magazines and galleries. With the exception of Computer Arts, which occasionally mentions maybe Peanuts in a passing article on merchandising, I can't really think of one magazine that has ever devoted time and space to the artform. Oh there has been the odd review and even the odd 4 or even 8 page piece on French or US cartoonists, like Sempe or Chris Ware in the broadsheets over here, but those are mainly puff-pieces by trendy hipster journalists trying to appear geekily cool. The same people ensure that lots of ill-informed column inches are devoted to the most talked-about graphic novels and even manga, but those always seem to have been squeezed in for novelty value amongst the "real" literature.
Over in France, meanwhile, The Musée de la Bande Dessinée, in Angoulème, the town that hosts the celebrated comic book festival every January, has been granted full status as a Museum of France; so it ranks alongside The Louvre, not just in the public imagination but also in officialdom. Not that there has ever been a great distinction between comic art and any other art in France. Indeed, The Louvre itself recently celebrated comics art, the 'ninth art', with an exhibition of original drawings and paintings by some very famous bédéistes (Bande Dessinées creators). The new museum, with thousands of original drawings and more than 100,000 magazines and comic books, will also function as a reference library, storing every comics publication published in France. And fortunately for the museum's director, not all the 34 million graphic publications the French consume every year are published there.
In France, there is no suggestion at all that cartoons are such low art that neither they nor their creators should be seen and heard. The French magazine, Beaux Arts is the sort of publication I imagine we will never see in the UK. It is an arts and culture magazine that will discuss Fauvism in one issue, Expressionism in another, Bande Dessinee (graphic novels) in another, and Manga in another. It is simply accepted that cartoons are art and that the cartoonists who create the work are artists.
It is the recent manga edition of Beaux Arts hors serie, Qu'est-Ce Que le manga? that, for me, really illustrates the lack of interest in cartoons, of respect for cartoonists, and of inquisitiveness and interest about the artform amongst the literati in the UK. It is, perhaps, this manga edition, more than those that have focused on Band Dessinee that illustrates the poverty of Britain's art scene. It is unimaginable that such a magazine with such an in depth discussion of the history and role of manga would be published in the UK.
Edited by Claude Pommereau, the manga edition of the magazine celebrates the artform looking back at the history of manga, and forward to the new wave of mangaka. From an examination of the ubiquitous role of manga in Japanese life and culture, the magazine looks at different genres and looks back to link the art of Hokusai with the venerable movement. The overview of the artform, in this context, makes it almost impossible to argue that comic books are not art and it goes some way to illustrating the poverty of thinking on these shores.
In addition to an examination of the culture of manga, and a small history of manga there are liberal illustrated examples, including a gorgeous reproduction of a Walking Man piece, by Jiro Taniguchi and an episode of Osamu Tezuka's Black Jack, both of which are 'un-mirrored' and should be read right to left. In addition, they are printed backwards through the magazine - better to enjoy the real Japanese-style experience of reading manga. The 'Walking Man' page below, is the final page of this excerpt.
With some excellent pieces on the masters of manga, the current crop of young masters, and the enfent terribles of manga, this edition of the magazine goes some way to explaining why you seldom hear any French cartoonists say 'I don't like manga', as many of their British and American counterparts do. Let me explain what I mean by that, whenever a cartoonist from Britain or America says 'I don't like manga' they invariably mean they do not like a particular genre of manga and, unsurprisngly, that genre is usually the genre of manga created for young girls aged 8-13. It is difficult to imagine the well-informed French cartoonist, and no doubt a good deal of the wider comics loving French public, if this magazine is anything to go by, mistaking one genre of manga for all Japanese comic books.
Beaux Arts magazine really does bring home to me that there is an almost unbridgeable chasm here in the UK, not between the reading public and the creators of comic books, graphic novels, BD and manga, but between the gatekeepers of the British Art World (including publishers) and the rest of the planet. Britain is fast becoming a cultural wasteland, obsessed with the sort of ephemeral souless art that the toxic banks hung in their foyers, and the prattle-filled thoughts of celebrity "authors". No wonder our cartoonists and illustrators and writers increasingly look elsewhere for support. You'll have noticed, I hope, that while the French have 'les bédéistes', and the Japanese have 'mangaka', Britain has no word to describe a cartoonist or illustrator who is skilled and experienced in the creation of comic art.