Graffix – The “British Manga”

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I’ve written before about a prevailing attitude in British comics fandom that somehow “doing manga” will “save” British comics from extinction and/or transformation into dumbed-down toy catalogues. Well the people who weren’t convinced by that post may be interested to find that actually “British manga” has been done, twice, and they’ve probably never even heard of it! I was reminded myself when I was digging through some 90’s Beanos not long after making the original post.

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This one might be worth a bit some day eh?

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The actual ad

The books are called Graffix, and were published by A & C Black in the late 90’s, and then again in the late 00’s as “Colour Graffix”. They have a complete story in each book, on a variety of themes. All of the stories are well-written, tense and adventurous. There’s quite obviously “boys” and “girls” stories which can be chosen by simply looking at the covers, however the appeal should be universal as they are all good. In fact sometimes the boyish stories turn out to be romances while the girlish ones turn out to be scary sci-fi/horror adventures!

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Front covers of the respective series

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And the backs

These were sold as books, rather than as comics, so would have stayed on the shelves just like the “tankobon” manga format that we get in Britain. They’re a fairly comparable size too.

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A Colour Graffix, ordinary Graffix, old hardback edition, a “Western edition” manga and a Japanese tankobon

Despite all of this, and the insistence that “the kids” “love that chunky format” and that comics should “go in the direction of manga” it is apparent that Graffix did not sell very well at all. In fact almost all the copies I have (gotten secondhand, mainly off Amazon resellers) are ex-library.

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I can recall those adverts appearing fairly regularly from around 1997-8 onwards until I stopped getting the Beano at some point in 1999. It seems like Graffix were hit with the problem that troubles the modern Dandy and ended the DCT Fun-Sizes – distribution! I don’t ever recall seeing them in bookshops (mind you at the time I would have been mainly looking for Star Wars novels in the Sci-Fi section) and only once in Ely Library (in about spring 2001 when I was “too old for comics” and also “into serious stuff like politics”).

The eagle-eyed will have noticed that one of the books in the advert features the distinctive style of Janek Matysiak (why yes I did spell it wrong and have had to come back!) who also works for Commando. He’s provided the cover and interior artwork for this particular story (which features “Han Solo” and “C-3PO” (in ‘stripped down’ form years before Star Wars Episode II!) taking a job from “Jabba the Hutt” who looks more like Ming The Merciless!). Not all of the stories were such blatant ripoffs, may I hasten to add. It’s good fun anyway.

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The adverts also show off the Graffix tagline of “it’s a book! It’s a comic!”. But what does this actually mean? Well basically it means that parts of the story are explained by type, in some books it’s “on the page” like in a book with the comic strip panels as “illustrations”. In other books the story is explained in boxes at the top of the panels. Either way it’s additional points of the story being explained by captions. This may be considered “unusual” in American or Japanese comics, but as every reader of this blog ought to know, it’s actually standard practice in proper British adventure comics! Here’s one of the wordier Graffix tales, Biker:

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Compare that a few examples from other titles such as Commando, Tiger and Radio Fun

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Another thing that Graffix have in common with the best of the traditional British adventure comics is the fact that the artists have all used their own style and not been forced into a particular “house” style (like in War Picture Library) or “type” of artwork (like most manga). Interestingly the copyright page in each book states that the ownership of the story, art and cover art all belongs to the respective creators! An incredibly enlightened attitude by the standards of properly published British comics even today. Though one that might possibly cause problems later, with the copyrights being ‘split up’.

One of the more distinctive art styles is that of Lucy Su, who actually uses two totally different styles in two different stories. The first is in Girl Gang.

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These bratty teenage girls have a much better ‘secret society’ than the ‘secret society’ me and my friends had between the ages of 8 – 12.

In this a girl called Alice does a couple of favours for a popular girl at school, and ends up being persuaded to join the girl’s gang, who do things like track down the houses of rude bus conductors and smash up their greenhouses.  Alice is assigned a mission to steal a “snobby” girl’s diary, but makes friends with this girl and instead ‘steals’ a fake, non-embarrassing diary. I must add that the story shows that the gang only writes off the girl as a snob because she is rich, but it turns out good and bad people exist independently of how much wealth they have. This is a good anti-socialist idea to be putting in children’s heads. I wonder what my bratty anarchist self of 2001 would have made of it?

Lucy Su uses a different style for the much-different The Headless Ghost. In this story a deaf boy is able to lip-read a ghost’s warning about a buried wartime bomb in a cemetery. The art style here is in contrasting pencils that creates a creepy atmosphere.

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Wooo

The much more conventional Guard Dog is drawn in a much more conventional style by Dave Burroughs. This is a logical follow-on from all those stories in annuals from the 90’s – 50’s about boys who discover smugglers / coiners operating in their neighborhood. This time the crime is video piracy, and the crooks are forcing the boy’s dad off their patch at the market, while at the same time making sure another carpentry stall owner gets the blame.

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Laser Quest is a wierd one. The art here is very gloomy and shadowy (though the story does mainly take place in a dark room). Bits of it actually remind me of Jose Maria Jorge, though there’s not a flying machine in sight! The story is about a girl who has to help her dad manage her younger brother’s birthday party at a Laser Quest game. Except the computers have been infected with a strange virus called ZUC. This later manifests itself as a rag-smothered player in the actual game itself, with a laser that can melt bricks! See what I mean about the “girls stories” being unexpectedly scary?

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And then there’s the boys story that turns out to be romantic. Though it does involve horses so I ought to have seen it coming. The art in this one is by Bob Moulder, and puts me in mind of another book I’ve seen, though I can’t seem to lay my hands on it at the moment. This book was definitely from the 50’s or 60’s though!

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Respect, illustrated by Kim Harley, is the Action to Guard Dog’s Splendid Book for Boys. It’s about a boy who’s teacher dad has been locked up for a crime that anybody but a teacher would just be fined for. He kicks out at the system by becoming a graffiti artist, trying to get in a local gang. If one artist sprays over another’s work it’s considered an insult and they attack him, the gang try and trick him into spraying over their own tag just to give them an excuse. In the end he realises that trying to “fight back” by making a mess everywhere is actually the easy way out rather than actually dealing with your problems. Admirable attitudes again, though not “right on” ones.

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Another story illustrated by Janek Matysiak is Bodyparts. This is set in the near future and features scientists experimenting on lab-grown organs, stem cells and other futuristic medical advances. But somebody is out to sabotage the experiments.

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This actually mirrors the real “near future”, ie our present, though the sabotage is political and orchestrated by people so pig-ignorant you don’t even know where to start on their “views”. In a century’s time the breakthroughs of the next 20 years or so will be viewed as one of the “big steps” in medical science. On the lines of Hippocrates, Vesalius, Jenner, Snow and Fleming. How they will laugh at people who think that “you might be eating DNA!” is an acceptable argument against genetic modification.

Finally a look at the more modern Colour Graffix. From the titles on A&C Black’s website they all appear to be reprints of the original books, but with colour! However as other experiments have shown adding colour to artwork not originally intended for it doesn’t tend to look very good. I get the impression the creation of Colour Graffix was more of a “because we can!” exercise thought up in a boardroom. Would have been much better to have reprinted the black and white ones and spent the extra printing money on new stories!

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If there’s one criticism I can give Graffix it’s that they’re far too short! Many of the stories just seem to halt abruptly. Here’s a side by side comparison with manga…

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As you can see Graffix is less than half the thickness. The other problem is that there’s not really many of them, there seems to have been only 32 books, released at the rate of around 4 a year through the late 90’s and up to 2001. The fact that Colour Graffix are just running through the same stories again doesn’t bode well either. They ought to produce a “Graffix deluxe” that are 2-3 times the length, in black and white, but keep the British-style storylines and artwork. Oh and cheapen the paper and cover quality just a tad to keep the price down. Market ’em well enough (maybe get them in with the manga section!) and they’ll fly off the shelves, I guarantee it! Plus bring back Roy Kane: TV Detective and Captain Hawk, those guys are crying out for recurring stories. Plus lets catch up with one of the many footballers of Graffix 10 years on, now that he’s playing for a professional team that’s on the up!

Oh and if you are reading this, A&C Black, get the Folio Society on a lavish reprint of this:

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Mine’s falling to bits but the paintings are beautiful. Need a tightly-bound slipcased edition!

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