Collectors of British comics have been fortunate over the past couple of years one way or another. There have been some excellent collections of strips, a variety of 'Best of' books and even a handful of non-fiction titles exploring various subjects, some good, some not so good. However, this is the one I've been looking forward most to seeing.
The forebear of Great British Comics by Paul Gravett & Peter Stanbury is Dennis Gifford's The International Book of Comics (1984); rather than attempt a chronological history, Paul and Peter have tackled the subject by showing how a variety of genres have been handled over the years, ranging from class and family to science fiction and superheroes. Dennis's book was fine up to a point: the number of cover reproductions was substantial but if you wanted to know what was going on inside the comic, you had to look elsewhere... and for many years there really wasn't anywhere else to look. Dennis's deepest interest was in the comics of the first half of the 20th century and he had little time for many of the titles that came after the 1950s.
This is what distinguishes Great British Comics: it opens the covers and lets readers see the full range of comic strips that have appeared in Britain over the years and juxtaposes the old and the new so that, for example, the cover of a Tiger Tim's Annual appears on the same spread as a detail from The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and Giles shares a page with the Fat Slags'.
The book celebrates the diversity of British comics without frowning or fawning over them and reveals that every decade has produced substantial and superb strips. They may not all be to everyone's liking -- 'Dan Dare' fans may have no time for Viz -- but common sense tells you that they reflect a changing world. In Dennis's books the world was cozy, safe and unchanging where, in Great British Comics, Paul and Peter cry vive la difference and offer ample proof that comics nowadays are more varied in their subject matter and style of presentation than they have ever been.
This isn't a knock against Dennis's book, which is an excellent starting point when it comes to the history of comics (and its scope, reflected in the title, is international), but for British comics, Great British Comics is going to be hard to beat for its breadth of coverage. The writing is accessible, the captions are detailed and the pictures wisely chosen to illustrate the points raised in the text. What better way to introduce (or re-introduce) yourself to comics?