As the son of the last British artist to be successfully prosecuted for displaying obscene paintings, I have some empathy with David Britton, the last person successfully prosecuted in Britain for publishing obscene literature. Unlike my father, who accidentally strayed into the purview of the police, Britton’s prosecution in 1992 was almost inevitable. His publisher, Manchester-based Savoy Books, was raided by the police with vindictive regularity between 1976 and 1997.
Ironically, Savoy has often been reviled as much by the left for its lack of political correctness as by the right for attacking the shibboleths of authority. It embodies a longstanding tradition of non-conformist and essentially anarchist thinking in Britain that also underpins Reverbstorm.
This is a graphic novel, written and illustrated by Britton and John Coulthart. Part of the long-running Lord Horror series, it is set in a nightmarish dreamscape where a fantasy 1930s New York is fused with the death camps at Auschwitz. Although presented in a single volume, the book began life in 1994 as an adult comic, published in the tradition of Dickens as a piece-work. It is tempting to say that is where the comparison with 19th-century literature ends. But the mire of Dickens’s world, where stories of callous modernity and human degradation go hand in hand, runs throughout this book.
Yet unlike Dickens there is a question whether there is a story here at all. There is the central motif of the psychopath Lord Horror, a pun on the British wartime traitor Lord Haw-Haw. Horror stalks the streets repeatedly slashing people, mainly Jews, with a cut-throat razor. He still has his radio show, but beyond a Joycean tour around the fantasy city it is difficult to outline a clear narrative thread.
The images of evisceration in the drawings are explicit. In a nod to Hollywood, Horror’s victims often have to endure a bad joke before their deaths, but you only have to think of a James Bond or Dirty Harry film to get the measure of how that cheapens human life.
And perhaps that is the point. Confront people with unmediated murder, mutilation, rape and racism and you force them to react. The police who raided Savoy assumed that reaction would be to celebrate these things, but the opposite is just as likely.
The lack of a clear narrative also resembles modernist literature, and both Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ and Joyce’s Finnegans Wake feature prominently. Britton and Coulthart borrow endlessly from modernist culture, with Seurat’s painting ‘Sunday at La Grande Jatte’ acting as a touchstone. In their drawings they pile images by Beardsley, Picasso and others on top of Seurat, so we end up with drawings that are so complex and layered, they verge on being chaotic.
In this they seem to illustrate somewhat self-consciously the ideas of Walter Benjamin. Indeed, Benjamin is quoted at the start of the novel imagining the ‘Angel of History’ looking at the story of humanity as a single moment in time, each event piling on the top of the next in layers of broken images. Here Seurat stands for some kind of 19th-century order, a ‘more innocent era’ the authors call it, and it is on top of him they heap the wreckage of the 20th century.
We might not agree that Seurat, a political anarchist himself, can be seen as emblematic of innocence and stability. But if you can suspend disbelief at that then the novel gains a navigable structure as a kind of fall narrative, all given life and power through strong and memorable draughtsmanship.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.