The final panel in the main hall at 2012’s Kapow Comic Convention saw UK comedians Jimmy Carr and Frankie Boyle sit down in front of an assembled audience to chat about comics and geek culture. The controversial Boyle, a lifelong comics fan, is the writer of “Rex Royd,” one of the flagship strips in Mark Millar’s “CLiNT” magazine, while Carr is a more recent addition to the ranks of popular British comedians to have professed an interest in comics.
The conversation began with Boyle reminiscing about the earliest comics he’d read as a child. “There were a lot of British kids’ comics — the one I read was called ‘Buddy.’ The first issue had a skull pin that you put in your jacket — and the stories were all horrible! There was one called ‘Hitler Lives’ — they’d preserved Hitler’s brain. Another thing was ‘Limp-Along Leslie’ — this guy was an England football international, with one leg shorter than the other.”
Carr interjected, jokingly wondering if anyone else in the room had heard of this comic or if Boyle had simply imagined it. After initial silence from the audience, a quick Google search by one attendee on their iPad did turn up a few images of “Buddy,” while “Hitler Lives” was found to have originated in a title called “The Crunch.” “British comics always seemed quite parochial to me,” said a surprised Carr, “but that sounds insane!”
“British comics were heavily based in war,” Boyle explained. “There was lots of violence.” He went on to describe another strip, from the famous long-running title “The Victor,” called “Death Wish.” “He was a racing driver and stuntman who had his face burned off in an accident. He was so disfigured that he wanted to die, so every week he’d set up his stunts to kill himself. But something would go wrong each time and he’d end up in triumph, but still alive!”
Carr observed that these sort of children’s comics often looked innocent to the parents buying them, despite being “dark and weird.” “But that’s still the thing with comics,” Boyle replied. “They’re outside the mainstream, and they’re so dark. Even the DC comics that are out at the moment, you couldn’t put on TV.” Carr agreed, pointing out “with ‘Kick-Ass,’ there was no controversy when the comic came out, but then the film came out and there was this massive controversy.”
Boyle explained how he first started reading American comics in his early twenties. “I was a student, and I was really broke. I’d just read these stacks of comics that my friends had, and being in the UK, often you’d only have three issues of something, and so not get the whole story. That’s something I tried to replicate with ‘Rex Royd’ — you’re reading it, and it feels like you’ve missed an issue somewhere.
“Vertigo was around at the time, and ‘Scarab’ by John Smith got me into that stuff,” Boyde continued. “Then Garth Ennis’ run on ‘Hellblazer,’ and then ‘The Invisibles.’ That was a big thing for me and my mates.”
Discussion then moved on to Boyle’s own comics writing — a career that began only recently with “Rex Royd.” “Now, we’re 77 pages into an epic that nobody reads or understands,”the comedian said with a laugh. Saying that it was only earlier that day that Boyle had met the artist Mike Dowling for the first time, he said “As standup comics we work alone, so to me the collaboration of comics seems like such a strange way to work — particularly when you’ve never met!”
Boyle feels lucky that comics were a sideline, rather than his main career as it takes some of the pressure off of the writer. “I don’t have to sell comics — I can just do it. With ‘Rex Royd,’ I’ve just tried to do the sort of comic I’m into, which is comics that have a poetic meaning. I love ‘The Filth’ by Grant Morrison, because you have to work out your own version of what that’s about. It’s an advantage of comics, because you can afford to be complicated. People can flick back if they’re not sure what’s going on.”
The floor was opened to questions from audience members — and following some slight mocking of an opening request for Boyle to autograph some books, one fan asked what comics the pair were reading at the moment.
“Everything I can get!” Boyle replied enthusiastically. “Just recently, ‘The Secret Service’ and ‘The Shadow.’ People say comics are in a boring phase at the moment, but there’s still really great stuff. I like Jason Aaron — ‘Scalped’ was great, and people said nobody could follow Garth Ennis on ‘Punisher,’ but his run was maybe even better.”
Carr, meanwhile, is a fan of “The Walking Dead.” Having finished the second season of the TV show, he moved on to the books in order to carry on the story. Boyle, on the other hand, declared that the series is “so fucking bleak, I almost gave up on it.”
Asked whether, as a writer, Boyle took more inspiration from the UK or US comics scenes, the comedian replied, “It’s hard to tell, because there’s so much crossover. If you told the average person in the street that most of the American superheroes are written by Scottish people, they’d be baffled! There’s a bit of a thing with that scene of UK writers in the US, though, which is that what those people did — they’ve done it, now. Alan Moore talked, in his book about writing comics, about how you could do a sci-fi story that would be a metaphor for money and capitalism. But you look at that and say, well, you people have done that kind of story so often and so well, it’s no longer a good comic book story. Maybe we need new people doing new kinds of stories.”
Carr asked Boyle whether he might go down the route of comics writing further, as it seemed quite a rewarding pursuit for him. “Yeah, sure, I’ve got ideas I’d like to do. One thing I’ve always loved is those continuity crisis comics,” Boyle replied, going on to explain to Carr the concept behind the likes of “Crisis on Infinite Earths.” “I’d like to write one of those from the POV of an athletic superhero, who gets pulled into one of those by heroes from another dimension and doesn’t know what the fuck is going on! He just has a massive nervous breakdown trying to make sense of what he’s seen.”
In answer to a question about how much time he spends writing comics, Boyle cited the previous day’s panel appearance by Warren Ellis. “He was saying that as a comics writer you need to write every day. That’s different from being a comedian. As a jokes writer, you need to know when not to do it, you know? But as a comics writer, you have to devote your life to it.”
Another fan asked if there was a particular level Boyle would like to reach with his comics. “I think the great thing in comics is that the bar is so high. There’s been so many great comic books written, and for all we get jaded, there’s so many fucking great comics. We’ve hit an interesting point in comics. It’s not fashionable to say, but we could yet be at the best of it. If you look at old stories, like Homer and ‘The Iliad’ — they were just versions of existing stories. I think we’re getting that with comics, where people can put their own twists on stories and characters that we already know.”
Asked if he could see “geek” references making their way into standup comedy more frequently, with the mainstream success of superheroes, Boyle was sceptical. “You can do it with the big heroes — people have always done Hulk and Superman gags — but you couldn’t do a ‘Hellblazer’ routine. I’d love to, though!”
Carr, asked who he thought was the biggest nerd in UK comedy: Boyle, Jonathan Ross or Dara O Briain, had a quick answer “Jonathan! He’s so passionately, weirdly into it; he just knows everything about it. It’s very infectious when someone’s that into something, and it’s good having friends who are into comics, who help you into it by giving you books and things. It seems to spread very much by word of mouth.”
“It’s a weird time,” added Boyle. “So many more people are watching big movies about comic book characters, but you don’t meet new people who are reading the comics.”
Asked which comics character he would like to kill off, and how, Boyle’s response was brisk. “I fucking hate Iron Man. He’s a fucking arms dealer! I’d just fire Iron Man into the fucking sun.”
Boyle initially replied to a question about his favorite writer by saying “I try to discourage my children from having favorites, it’s a bit weird.” Instead he named a few individual comics her particularly enjoys — Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell’s “Birth Caul,” and Grant Morrison’s “The Filth” and “Seaguy.”
Despite the previous reply, the next fan asked about favorite comics characters. “The guy in ‘The Walking Dead’ [Rick Grimes],” answered Carr. “I like him because I think he makes a lot of the right choices. Although they don’t always come off.” “I love John Constantine,” Boyle added, “because he speaks to your inner cunt. He does a horrible thing, and you think, yeah, that’s horrible, but you’d do it, wouldn’t you?”
Finally, the pair were asked which comic, if they could choose one, they’d put on the UK’s national curriculum for schools. Carr chose “Maus,” while Boyle said he’d “put most of them on there” before settling on “The Invisibles.” “I think it’s quite a good map of reality. It’s still got a lot to say, and it’s a really good way in to alternative stuff.”