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Wokker. Notes on a Surrealist comic strip

Roger Sabin

Résumé

This essay explores the creation and development of a British comic strip, Wokker (1971-1999), and its connections with the surrealist movement. Although the strip is remarkable for its content and formalist properties, it remains obscure both because of its publishing circumstances, and because it does not fit easily into a history of comics. Rather it can be argued that its conceptual roots can be traced to the artistic ferment that happened in Paris in the 1920s (with Breton as a key reference point), and that it represents a very English, and late-flowering, example of the surrealist idea.

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  • 1  Sections of this essay have been reworked from Sabin (2011), though the Coleman book appeared afte (...)

1This essay explores the circumstances behind the creation of (possibly) Britain’s first and only surrealist comic strip – Wokker. The strip ran in the trade newspaper for the teaching profession, The Times Educational Supplement, between 1971 and 1972, and in various other venues sporadically until 19991. The star of the strip was a strange wooden bird, the eponymous Wokker, who commentates sarcastically on the world, and who can talk to animals, inanimate objects and readers alike. The strip had many innovative features, and was notable for the way it drew attention to the manner of its construction – a self-referentiality more associated with comics of a much later vintage. It was, and remains, an obscurity, but its surrealist aspirations make it significant both for the history of comics and for that of surrealism.

A surrealist comic strip ?

  • 2  A discussion on the “forum” section of Comic Book Resources (“the premier online comics magazine”) (...)
  • 3  The most sophisticated of these has been developed by scholar Pedro Moura, prototyped as a talk, “ (...)

2The qualifying word “possibly”, above, is important because defining the qualifications for being considered a “surrealist strip” is difficult. The epithet “surrealist” can have different meanings. It has been a label applied to strips of vastly different kinds – particularly examples about dreaming, or featuring unexpected juxtapositions, but also strips about psychedelic or hyperreal consciousnesses2. In terms of more scholarly taxonomies and typologies, definitions have tended to emphasise formalist qualities, such as an aesthetic that is “anti-narrative”.3 Also, the notion of a “first” is controversial, and dependent on context and definitions (added to which, there may have been other examples of surrealist comic strips that this writer is not aware of).

3The picture is complicated by the fact that certain fine artists working in a surrealist tradition have produced sequential narratives that might be considered “comics”. Max Ernst, for example, produced his A Week of Kindness in 1934: a “visual novel” in five booklets done in the form of a collage. It may count as the first surrealist comic, depending on definitions, though it was not “anti-narrative” and many surrealists would have derided its novelistic aspirations on the basis that the notion of the novel was bourgeois and redundant.

  • 4  The Barthes essay « La mort de l’auteur » was first published in France in 1967, but became widely (...)

4These caveats aside, this essay will concentrate on the intentions behind Wokker, which means looking in detail at the biographies of its creators. This approach itself is questionable, and acknowledgement is duly made to the warnings of Roland Barthes and his followers about “the death of the author” (Barthes, 1977, p.142-148)4. Rather, what is at stake here is a verifiable connection between Wokker and what was going on in Paris in the 1920s, and the way in which its mode of expression can be traced to the tenets of the original French surrealists.

5Wokker typically appeared in stories told in four or five panels, and was designed as an open-ended series. Wokker trundles round his environment on wheels, but is no kid’s toy. Sometimes he takes on the personality of a mischief-maker, sometimes an ingénue, and sometimes a cynical observer. His frustration level is low, and he is apt to exclaim “Wokkit!” when things don’t go his way. His adventures follow a logic of their own – which sometimes means no logic at all. Created in 1966, Wokker’s publication history is complex. After its high point as a weekly strip in the Times Educational Supplement (hereafter TES), it appeared in three less well known magazine publications – Knuckleduster Funnies (1985-86), The Truth (1987-89) and The Whistler (1995-99).

6Taking the strip’s TES incarnation as our focus: Wokker was introduced in a single panel illustration on the back page (cf. image 1). Here, Wokker is pictured having a conversation with a caterpillar, who is perched on a mushroom (the dialogue consists of the caterpillar asking, “Wok?” and Wokker replying “Wok!”). The accompanying caption reads: “A new commentator on life in general joins the TES this week...”  We will return to the mushroom image and its psychedelic associations in a moment.

Image 1
First Appearence

Image 1First Appearence

EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 8 October 1971. Image on copyright.

7In the weekly editions of Wokker thereafter, the strips appear on the inside back-page (the People/Media/Diary page) under different titles (“Wokker by Wok”, “The Sorrows of Wokker“, “Wok with Wokker”, etc.). Each is radically dissimilar in terms of content, but all have the central character as a focus. Experimentalism is always to the fore, and shifting backgrounds are common. In one example, the sky is clear in the first few panels, and then becomes a series of abstract shapes. In another, a churning sea becomes a verdant garden. In another, Wokker surveys a map of the British Isles first from a vantage behind it, then from in front. In other strips, outdoor scenes become indoors. In rarer examples, the nature of the construction of a comic strip is drawn to attention. In one (cf. image 2), the panels are depicted as blocks, with Wokker about to be crushed at the end by a falling block (“I’m dying...to find...out...how...this strip... ends.”).

Image 2

Image 2

EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 24 March 1972. Image on copyright.

Image 3

Image 3

EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 26 November 1971. Image on copyright.

8Animals, strange or otherwise, sometimes feature as a supporting cast. In the opening cartoon, as we have seen, it was a caterpillar. In one full-strip example, Wokker discovers he has squeaky wheels, and goes to seek the help of “the oil-can bird” (cf. image 4), who is a creature with the body of a kiwi and with an oil can for a head. In another, Wokker asks, variously, a cricket, a parrot and a dog about the meaning of life, ending in frustration: “Life can get wokked!” In a further instance, he visits a unicorn, a dragon and a mermaid (cf. image 5), concluding: “Thank wok I’m normal!”

Image 4

Image 4

EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 10 December 1971. Image on copyright.

Image 5

Image 5

EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 15 September 1972. Image on copyright.

9At other times, Wokker meets versions of himself. In one example, he checks, panel by panel, to see if things are where he left them – “Good... my helter-skelter is still there!”, “Splendid! No one’s moved my cross-roads”, etc. until in the final panel he checks his cube, only to discover that a doppelganger has taken residence on top of it. He challenges: “You up there... Come down here! At once!”, only to be answered with “Get wokked!” In another strip, he senses that he’s being followed, and turns round to see his double turn on his wheels and flee into the distance. The strip ends with multiple Wokkers following him. In a third (cf. image 6), a frightened Wokker is stalked by a giant version of himself. The strip ends with shadows of giant beaks on the wall above him, and his anguished plea: “I’ll pay! I’ll pay! Just give me... another week....”

Image 6

Image 6

EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 3 December 1971. Image on copyright.

10Finally, political allusions occasionally feature. In some strips, an industrial landscape is glimpsed in the background, always with smokestack factories. In one example, Wokker gets stuck in a factory chimney (which changes from horizontal to vertical, and spits him out covered in soot). Occasionally, “wok” stands in for “work”, with the implication that Wokker could be a worker. Other politics also appear: in the example already mentioned, the British Isles are menaced by a monster-like mainland Europe. In another, pacifist politics are explicit: A Kitchener-style poster demands “Wokker wants you”; an army of Wokkers is formed, marching in unison; and the strip ends with multiple Wokkers fighting with each other and an atomic cloud in the background. The script reads as follows: “It only needs a small quarrel... with a few uninvited assistants, to encourage.../ governments to cash in.../ and armies to march/ How sad that noble wars should have such sordid beginnings!” (cf. image 7).

Image 7

Image 7

EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 18 February 1972. Image on copyright.

  • 5  For a good introduction to the American underground, see Rosenkranz (2008); for the British side o (...)

11Here, then, was an experimental, highly unusual, avant garde strip appearing in a trade paper for teachers. What was going on? It may have been that the editor who commissioned the strip for the paper saw in it some affinity with the underground cartooning that was then very popular. The early 1970s was a time when the counter-cultural press was flourishing (for example, IT, Oz and the underground “comix”), and when cartoonists like Robert Crumb, Robert Williams and Victor Moscoso were exploding the notion of what was possible in a comic strip.5 The counter-cultural/underground sensibility – like Wokker’s – was essentially anarchist, and at the more avant garde end of such work, strips offered an often drug-influenced journey into deconstruction. In that first Wokker illustration, the mushroom might have seemed like a clue to its mysterious underground-slash-psychedelic nature. Yet the key word here is “might”.

  • 6  The history of strips and other illustrations appearing in the TES has yet to be written. The maga (...)

12The TES was not an underground publication by any means. But a cursory browse of issues from the time reveals that it was far from “un-hip“, and did make an effort to reflect the zeitgeist. For example, there was plenty of space for illustration within its pages, often of an abstract or “undergroundy” kind, and the inclusion of photo-essays and typo/graphic experiments was not rare. The journalism itself took a sympathetic line on the counter-culture: for example, in the period that Wokker runs, there are several reports on the Oz “schoolkids trial”. And it is noticeable that the photos of teachers at work commonly focused on individuals with extremely long hair (a coincidence or some kind of statement?).6

  • 7  Krazy Kat is the obvious example, kept alive by William Randolph Hearst.
  • 8  Which is not to say that psychedelia had nothing in common with surrealism – see footnote 5.

13Even so, Wokker was unorthodox, not just by the standards of the TES, but even by those of the underground. It seems clear that it was kept alive for as long as it was by the support of a single, sympathetic, editor – much in the manner of previous left-field strips in comics history.7 But this made its position in the paper vulnerable, and when a reader wrote in to complain that Wokker was incomprehensible, its days were numbered: in retrospect it’s remarkable that it even lasted for a year. As for the strip’s seeming resonances with the underground, suffice to say that its creative influences were to be found elsewhere, in surrealism, and that therefore psychedelia was not in its purview (any nudge-nudge mention of mushrooms was greeted with hilarity by its creators).8 Which may have been part of the reason that it failed to click not only with the more conservative readers of the TES, but also with its more underground-literate constituency.

14How, then, should we think about Wokker? The fact is that, far from being a product of the “free-thinking” 1960s/early 70s, its essence, if not the strip itself, had its origins in the 1940s, and was more in the tradition of André Breton than of any comics cartoonist. It was, in short, an attempt to channel surrealism in a new direction. In order to explore how this might have come about, it is necessary to digress to trace the biographies of its two creators – so far as those biographies are known.

Keeping the flame of surrealism alive

  • 9  Thacker remains a mysterious figure, but there are copious sources on Earnshaw, including a book ( (...)
  • 10  I am very grateful to Les Coleman, a friend of Earnshaw and fellow artist, for access to the archi (...)

15Wokker was created by two men, both with writing and drawing skills: Eric Thacker (1923-1997) and Anthony Earnshaw (1924-2001). They had been friends since their teenage years in Leeds, and we can trace Wokker’s genesis and early years via their surviving correspondence, and via more recent (1980s-90s) autobiographical notes by Earnshaw plus comments from Earnshaw’s friends and family9. The most interesting source is a pile of letters between the two pals that includes doodles, sketches, poems and illustrated envelopes. It attests to the unusually close bond between them - and even though they lived close-by, the letters are often dated a few weeks apart (the correspondence remains unpublished)10.

  • 11  André Breton refers to “the marvellous” several times in the First Surrealist Manifesto (1924) ava (...)

16Thacker and Earnshaw discovered the wonders of surrealism and jazz at about the same time – and agreed that, following the Surrealist Manifesto, both phenomena were “pathways to the marvellous”11. Thus, Paris in the 1920s and New Orleans in the 1930s and 40s became the twin foci of their attention – both “exotic” places in their way, and thus excitingly distanced from industrial Leeds. Thus, the banter between them veered from being about surrealism in its original form, and its subsequent manifestations in Britain and elsewhere (1940s-60s), to jazz, both in its New Orleans incarnation and the “trad” revival that shook Britain in the post-war years. Breton and Louis Armstrong were their gods.

  • 12  This was a view endorsed by Earnshaw, who claimed that when he discovered surrealism, it was “at i (...)

17So far as surrealism per se was concerned, Thacker and Earnshaw were fully aware that by the late 1940s, the respectable critics had largely lost interest, and that, indeed, there was a backlash happening.12 However, they were not deterred, and agreed that surrealism was a “way of life” that transcended any kind of historical/aesthetic periodisation. This attitude exhibited itself in various ways, and developed over time. The letter-writing was a part of it, but to “live surrealism” entailed more active pursuits. For example, they took the surrealists’ call to spontaneity seriously, and would rendezvous in a cinema, having bought tickets, and then leave without watching the film, to go and plot elsewhere. They were having fun, but at the same time with a serious, philosophically-informed, purpose.

  • 13  The introduction to this book usefully discusses the meaning of Englishness (as opposed to “Britis (...)

18The pair was soon exploring the wider possibilities of rule-breaking through humour. They relished nonconformism, and shared a vaguely similar political outlook, which could reasonably be characterised as anarchist. They were both from a working class background, and it’s clear that they believed in the transformational power of surrealism in a political sense. However, despite the surrealist insistence on the irrelevance of national boundaries, and despite their passion for Paris and New Orleans, they remained “English” to the core, developing over time a mannered way of communicating (not mock-gentrified, exactly, but self-knowing in its use of polite turns of phrase e.g. “My dear fellow...”, etc.). As cultural historian Ian Walker has noted: “it seems undeniable that there is something Spanish about the work of Bunuel and something Czech about the work of Svankmajer...” (Walker, 2007, p.7)13 Similarly, it is “undeniable” that there is something English about Thacker and Earnshaw’s brand of surrealism, and thus about Wokker.

Image 8
Example of correspondence (c. 1968).

Image 8Example of correspondence (c. 1968).

Image on copyright.

  • 14  Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens, a Belgian artist, musician and writer, had been a major player in th (...)

19Within this broadly shared world-view, each individual had his own passions. Earnshaw was attracted by painting, drawing and sculpture. He started making art when in his early 20s, being entirely self-taught, and later made occasional pilgrimages to London to visit the gallery run by ELT Mesens (The London Gallery), one of the few places to keep the flame of surrealism alive.14 There is a story that on one of these trips, Earnshaw wanted to buy a Magritte painting, but couldn’t afford the necessary 75 pounds (today that painting would be valued in the millions). Over time, Earnshaw would garner a reputation as an artist of note – as we shall see. He also worked, part-time, for much of his life, at various art schools.

  • 15  Different surrealist factions followed different socialist and anarchist ideologies. For example, (...)
  • 16  The Leeds exhibition also included a watercolour painting of Wokker, entitled “Wokker’s eyesight f (...)

20Earnshaw was also perhaps more political than Thacker, and had an affinity with the edgier aspects of surrealism’s call to class consciousness.15 He came from a poorer background than his friend, and later wrote of his childhood: “Ever present were the metallic clatter and dull booms from the works of steelmasters… and acrid smells from the plumes of coloured smoke...” (EARNSHAW, 1987)16. In the 1950s, he drove a gantry crane, and recalled “Between lifts, most drivers read the racing page. Not me. Much to the amusement of my workmates I painted what they called, "Daft pictures". Perforce, they had to be small - have you ever been in the cramped cabin of a crane?...” (EARNSHAW, ”Autobiographical Sketch”, version 2, n. d.). The industrial backgrounds in Wokker, sometimes including cranes, attest to this life-experience, and in time Earnshaw would go on to produce a series of more overtly political cartoons. Meanwhile, his literary diet included anarchist magazines, and he had dealings with the anarchist Freedom Press (EARNSHAW, Gail. n.d. and 2011, p.28).

21Finally, Earnshaw was a walker. This may seem like a minor point, but his random explorations of the seedier and less well known districts of Leeds was a considered part of his creative process. As a pedestrian, he was keen to see and interrogate his environment anew – “I would walk using only back-streets and side-roads – secret passages of yet another species.” (quoted in Melly, 1991, p.65) This was a game the surrealists also recommended (and which the Situationists later theorised as the dérive): Earnshaw, however, later claimed he was using walking in this way long before he had heard of this. When the meandering by foot no longer sufficed, he continued his psychic explorations by developing the habit of “alighting trams at random” (ibid).

22Thacker had other enthusiasms. For example, he was more interested in words, and especially poetry. He was enamoured of the surrealist approach to verse, as well as being interested in other kinds (for example, the work of the “New Apocalyptics” group of British poets, which was itself often influenced by surrealism). For example, in the correspondence with Earnshaw, there are frequent mentions of Breton’s oeuvre, and a humorous Breton-esque poem of six verses (untitled and undated, but probably 1968):

Surrealism met my hand the other day and shook it.

I was not there at the time. When my hand arrived home

It was white and visibly shaken. I said; “How many times have you

Been warned about playing by the canal alone?”

Surrealism met my hand the other day and shook it.

A bird fell out of it into a bush, which now has three.

Surrealism met my hand the other day and shook it.

When I passed the spot a little later, the affaire

Had evidently been taken much further. I don’t like

Being forced into the role of peeping tom.

Surrealism me my hand the other day and shook it.

Today, the teeth marks still show.

Surrealism met my hand the other day and shook it.

Several of my other hands are fiercely jealous.

Surrealism met my hand the other day and shook it.

“It’s a cold day”, he said. “What are you doing outdoors

Without a glove?”

23The poem is accompanied by a sketch of a snarling Wokker saying: “Just let surrealism try shaking my hand!”

24Thacker’s love of jazz was perhaps more intense than Earnshaw’s, and indeed, he would become an authority on the topic, reviewing records for a variety of publications (he briefly played keyboards and composed his own songs.) His letters to Earnshaw sometimes descended into a kind of gibberish, which could be a reflection of the surrealist urge towards automatic writing, or possibly a reflection of Slim Gaillard’s “vocalese” style of jazz singing, which made use of improvised lyrics.

25Finally, Thacker was religious, and this set him apart from Earnshaw, who was more true to the surrealist line in being an atheist. In the late 1940s, Thacker was called up for national service, and spent time in India at the moment of partition. There, he evidently witnessed some gruesome sights, which solidified his commitment to pacifism. By the 1960s, he was a Methodist Minister, though he later converted to Catholicism (the dates are not clear). In the correspondence with Earnshaw he often refers to a character called “the evil sperrit”, and in one sketch, Wokker appears with a halo above his head. Indeed, in the TES run of Wokker there are several appearances by the evil sperrit, depicted as a black leaf-like creature with long claws (cf. image 9), including an example where he gets caught in a ”sperrit trap” in the shape of a crucifix.

Image 9

Image 9

EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 12 November 1971. Image on copyright.

26So Wokker requires to be seen as emerging organically from this general intellectual and artistic environment, and specifically from the joining of these two remarkable minds. As we have noted, the character emerged in 1966, and was invented by Thacker. The name was borrowed from one of his poems that attempted to capture the sound of a drummer hitting the rim of a drum: “wok, wok, wok…” (though he was also aware that “voc” was the old English word for “voice” – he would sometimes refer to Wokker as “the wokbird”). Earnshaw added wooden legs and wooden wheels, and ears. Scenarios and plots were written by both. From the start, despite both men’s love of humour (and, clearly, their love of making each other laugh), the idea was to mount, in Earnshaw’s words, “a serious attack on convention” (see EARNSHAW, Gail. Draft biography, n.d.).

  • 17  “Musrum” is a play on the word “mushroom”, and again provoked curiosity about a possible psychedel (...)

27It’s important to note, too, that Wokker connected with other Thacker/Earnshaw outputs. The pair tended to work on different projects simultaneously, some of which cross-fertilised. In particular, the 1960s gave rise to an illustrated novel called Musrum. This, again, was a slow-burning enterprise that took years to come to fruition, eventually being published to critical acclaim by Jonathan Cape in 1968. Briefly, Musrum involved a demi-god who sets out to create his own world because he dislikes the one he’s inherited, and the story is peppered with gnomic aphorisms (“A torpedoed cathedral sinks rapidly into the earth”). In the letters between Thacker and Earnshaw prior to Musrum’s publication, it’s clear that the surreal aspects of the book sometimes fed from jokes and thoughts concerning Wokker, and that occasionally it was the other way round: at one point, the title for the strip was “Musrum’s Wokker”.17

  • 18  Seven Secret Alphabets appeared in 1972.

28Other projects discussed by the two men in the correspondence similarly made their way into the strips, such as various bizarre kinds of pictorial alphabet. These involved images taking the place of capital letters: for example, an “E” would be a comb with some teeth missing. (“Huh! What kind of a cartoon strip is this…”, enquires an angry Wokker in one post-TES example, as he surveys a massive Will Eisner-like spelling-out of WOKKER, “…where the hero takes a back seat to his own name!”)18

  • 19  Melly often namechecked comics, and for a while scripted the strip Flook in The Daily Mail.

29Although Thacker and Earnshaw worked in a hermetically sealed world, and although neither man seems to have been particularly ambitious when it came to promoting their work, they did nevertheless garner a following as time progressed. They were not alone in their love of surrealism and jazz, and dotted around the country, like-minds began to get in touch. The most important of these was George Melly, self-styled jazz performer, cultural critic, anarchist and surrealist. He was from a different class background to Thacker and Earnshaw, but became a champion of their work (and of the latter’s in particular). He had got to know Earnshaw when he was working at Mesen’s London Gallery, and had even bought one of his watercolours. Later, he was instrumental in getting Wokker included in an exhibition of comic strips created by fine artists, held at the ICA in 1970 (twenty unframed Wokker strips were tacked to the wall). He had a hand in getting Musrum published, and wrote that it “would one day be seen as a masterpiece”: he often namechecked Wokker in his other writings. (Melly, 1987)19

Image 10
Example of correspondence (c. 1968), with George Melly (bottom left).

Image 10Example of correspondence (c. 1968), with George Melly (bottom left).

Image on copyright.

  • 20  Melly has referred to the early British followers of jazz and surrealism as an “underground” (in a (...)

30Melly wasn’t the only one. Other fans and fellow-travellers down the years included artist Patrick Hughes (who commented that “you cannot imagine cuddling Wokker” (reported in Melly, ibid)), poet Adrian Henri (one of the “Liverpool scene”), anarchist art critic Arthur Moyes (best known for his work at the publication Freedom), and, later, artist, poet, anarchist-sympathiser and jazz musician Jeff Nuttall (author of Bomb Culture, one of the key texts of the counter-culture), and artist Ian Breakwell (best known for his Diary, and who wrote that Wokker was “the most original cartoon creation since Mickey Mouse” (Breakwell, 1998).20

  • 21  For a good selection of post-Thacker strips, see the Earnshaw website. The example where Wokker de (...)

31But despite the mounting interest, the TES was a high point for Wokker. It would never again achieve the fame or exposure of what Earnshaw called its “halcyon days” (EARNSHAW, “A Short History...”  n. d.). When the axe fell, it did not take long for Thacker to become disillusioned with the strip. As Earnshaw later recalled: “"Does poor WOK have a future?"I remember asking him. Forthwith came his answer, "He's a dead duck".” (ibid) But for Earnshaw, this was not the end. He had invested too much over the years in the adventures of this strange bird, and was prepared to continue producing strips alone – which he did, with his friend’s blessing. Thus, the vast majority of Wokker strips that exist are from “the Earnshaw era”, which continued till 1999 in print (though he continued to produce the strips until his death in 2001). It would take another essay to look at them in depth, but suffice to say that post-Thacker, they take on a different aura. The words are fewer, the art is slicker, and the “class war” aspects are more evident. They are still entertaining, and still packed with ideas, but inevitably the law of diminishing returns sets in.21

A “low culture” surrealism?

  • 22  “Postmodern” is another difficult term that tends to be applied haphazardly. If, following writers (...)
  • 23  Indeed, this is exactly what I assumed when I first came across Wokker in the 1980s: when I eventu (...)

32Wokker’s publication history post-TES is convoluted, but intriguing for the way that it once again surfs a subcultural zeitgeist – namely punk/post-punk. If the strip could be (mis-) interpreted as a hippie-ish counter-cultural product during its TES days, so the same was true for punk/post-punk and its 1980s incarnations. Specifically, this was the era of post-underground “alternative comics”, which often fed from a punk attitude. The more left-field of these dealt in an aesthetic that started to be labelled “neo-dadaist” or “postmodern”.22 Foremost among them was the American anthology RAW, but Britain had its own contenders, including Escape magazine. Suddenly, Earnshaw looked like he could belong in the same bracket as the twentysomething, often art school trained, cartoonists of this new wave.23

  • 24  Nuttall’s devotion to self-publishing and the small press was legendary. In the early 1960s, his p (...)

33This cultural positioning was evident in Wokker’s two 1980s placements. The first was in Knuckleduster Funnies (1985-86), which was an anthology of prose, strips and illustrations that took the form of a fanzine in the punk mould. As such, it was stapled and photocopied, and very much a “do-it-yourself” enterprise, with a typically zine-style attitude to localism, emanating as it did from Todmorden in Lancashire. Wokker was evidently seen as a “northern” product in the same way that other contributions hailed from the north (e.g. the illustrations of Mike Bryson, also a member of celebrated post-punk band Bogshed). Curiously, it was Jeff Nuttall who co-founded the zine, a name associated with a pre-punk era, though it should perhaps be remembered that Nuttall had always been a proponent of lo-fi endeavours, and had been deeply critical of hippie culture’s links with capitalism.24Knuckleduster Funnies was of its time, and like most zines did not last long, making it to four issues.

  • 25  Wokker’s fine art connections continued in this period, and the Dean Clough Gallery, Halifax put o (...)

34The second publication to give Wokker a home in the 1980s was The Truth (1987-89). This was a glossier affair; a properly produced monthly magazine with newsagent distribution. It styled itself as a satirical comedy magazine for the post-Young Ones era – a kind of hip alternative to Private Eye. Illustrational content was very much to the fore, and it featured work by future comics luminaries such as Mark Buckingham and Matt Brooker, as well as articles by Neil (Sandman) Gaiman. Founding co-editor Steven Buckley was alerted to Wokker’s qualities by Ian Breakwell, and commissioned the strip at 60 pounds a go – the most money it would ever earn. Buckley wrote to Earnshaw, perhaps echoing the kind of lone enthusiasm that kept the strip afloat at the TES, “[Readers] continue to be baffled by it, which is a Good Thing!” (Buckley, c.1988) However, The Truth was not a success, and the competition in the comedy magazine market was too fierce: arguably, it was squashed by the juggernaut that was Viz.25

  • 26  The afterlife of Wokker included the section on the Earnshaw website, a set of eight postcards pro (...)

35But Wokker had one more burst of energy left, and in the 1990s the wooden bird took to its wheels once again. The venue was The Whistler, where it appeared between 1995 and 1999 – the longest run of its lifespan. This was another obscure publication, being the long-established magazine of the Chelsea Arts Club, an august private members’ club for artists, writers, poets and architects (and a publication many miles – literally and metaphorically - from the northern edginess of Knuckleduster Funnies). For Earnshaw the main thing was that his beloved Wokker was finding an audience, and insofar as the strip had always been a kind of fine art experiment (and that Earnshaw himself was by now a respected artist) the fact that it was now being read by artists represented a kind of coming home. Earnshaw died in 2001, leaving behind dozens of unpublished strips.26

36Having looked at the history of the strip, and of its creators, it is now necessary to add a couple of brief points in conclusion about the way Wokker fits – or does not fit – into a broader history of comics, and whether it was as formalistically innovative as its surrealist roots might suggest. For in order to critique the strip from a more detached perspective, in which the creators’ biographies do not necessarily come into play (pace Barthes), we need to return to the close readings that opened this essay. For it is clear that, for all the strip’s strangeness, it is still “narrative” in a conventional sense. As a series of sequential panel storylines, it conforms to certain established patterns, not least because it has to – the grid is a rigid structure, although it allows for experimentation. Therefore Wokker cannot be considered “anti-narrative” in the sense of many surrealist artworks.

  • 27  Pedro Moura, email discussion with the author, 16 November 2011.
  • 28  Perhaps the connection goes further: Ernst’s work included a bird-like character, known as “Loplop (...)

37Portuguese comics scholar Pedro Moura, who is developing a typology of experimental strips, confirms this view: “Most of the Wokker strips do attempt the creation of a rather clear meaning, more often than not with some degree of rowdiness, or social commentary, or they exhibit a close, circular meaning that makes the strip a very clever narrative unit....” However, Moura would include the aforementioned A Week of Kindness under the “anti-narrative” rubric: “When I think of the word "surrealism", I think of the amazingly new and jarring relationships that Max Ernst brought about with his romans-collages27 (in fact, Earnshaw was a fan of Ernst, and had purchased one of the romans-collages from the London Gallery.28)

38In whatever ways we think about Wokker making meaning in an experimental fashion, it’s clear that it has parallels with other strips. The shifting backgrounds are reminiscent of Krazy Kat (early 1900s); the changes in scale and vantage point are similar to Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland (from circa the same time); and some of the more playful panel transitions and layouts are reminiscent of the work of certain 19th century cartoonists (for example, Marie Duval on the “Ally Sloper” comics, and Gustave Verbeek on The Upside Downs of Little Lady Lovekins and Old Man Muffaroo).

39In terms of more recent strip history, there’s a superficial similarity with various kinds of broadly counter-cultural work – as we have noted. Some of the strip’s precisely-drafted linework and receding horizons recall illustrator and cartoonist Stewart Mackinnon (Oz, Time Out, Spare Rib), while Wokker’s bizarre appearance is very similar to Bryan Talbot’s hallucinogenic talking wooden parrot in his “Chester Hackenbush” stories for Brainstorm comix (mid-1970s). The experimental juxtapositions sometimes look like the kind of thing American underground cartoonists like Art Spiegelman and Victor Moscoso were attempting. It is also known that Earnshaw had a passing interest in Bill Griffith’s work (whose Zippy the Pinhead similarly featured a protagonist who travels through a nonsensical world in “innocent” fashion).

40But this game of “spot the similarity” is ultimately frustrating. The creators of Wokker, though they were adept at using what would later become known as “the language of comics”, had no real interest in the medium’s history or development. It is more likely that they were utilising a form of “low” culture more out of an intuitive understanding of surrealism’s professed aim of erasing the divisions between “high” and “low”. The venues in which Wokker appeared were not comic books, as such, and were usually publications where strips were not the focus. As we have seen, even though Wokker emerged at the same time as the underground, the connections were tenuous to say the least (Thacker and Earnshaw were already in their forties, and had little in common with the typically young, typically middle-class, typically London-based, typically long-haired producers of IT, Oz, etc.). What is striking about Wokker, therefore, is how un-comicy it is.

  • 29  The most convenient place to see examples of Wokker at the moment is on the Earnshaw website (URL (...)

41For this reason, the strip remains waiting to be rediscovered. With the rise in the cultural status of comics in the 1990s and 2000s there has been an accompanying stream of books that investigate the less well known tributaries of the medium’s history. For example, Dan Nadel’s Art out of Time is about “Unknown Comics Visionaries 1900-1969”; Peter Maresca’s Forgotten Fantasies looks at “Sunday Comics 1900-1915”, while Craig Yoe’s Arf Museum reproduces overlooked strips done by fine artists such as Picasso. To date, Wokker remains under the radar – it is not mentioned in any history of comics, and even “comprehensive” encyclopaedias give it a miss.29

  • 30  Ian Walker: “It would be impossible to claim that Surrealism in England can rival Surrealism in Pa (...)

42What of Wokker’s importance to the history of surrealism? If we accept the prevailing view that, first, surrealism in Britain is a footnote to surrealism elsewhere, and that, second, surrealism was on a steep decline in Britain from the 1940s onwards, then Wokker can be seen as a footnote to a footnote.30 This marginalisation becomes even more pronounced when one considers that the person in our story who has attracted most of the critical limelight is Anthony Earnshaw. His paintings, sculptures and assemblages have been written about widely, formed the basis for several exhibitions, and were the subject of a BBC television programme. Wokker, if it is mentioned at all in relation to Earnshaw’s career, is usually done so in passing – again, as a footnote.

43But Wokker deserves more attention. Earnshaw, for example, never saw it as a digression, and the strip’s relative invisibility in texts about him undoubtedly has much to do with traditional prejudices against comics as an artform (a status in which he and Thacker revelled). As a surrealist project, Wokker tapped into themes emanating from the fundamental tenets of French surrealism in the 1920s, and re-shaped them in new ways. To quote the historian of British surrealism, Michel Rémy: “Surrealist works seek, in Breton’s words, "the extension of the possible". Their validity can only be judged by the extent to which they widen the perception of the relationships between things, deepen the understanding of what lies behind the facade of reality and create an endless, forever insoluble, interrogation of not only what one sees but what one is” (REMY, 1999, p19-20). That being the case, Wokker’s “validity” is beyond doubt. It can be seen as confirmation that surrealism remained vital in Britain into the late 20th century, and that the search for “the marvellous” extended beyond painting and poetry. For these reasons, and for its uniqueness as a comic, it is significant.

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Bibliographie

BARTHES, Roland. Image-Music-Text Glasgow: Fontana Press, 1977.

BREAKWELL, Ian. “Tomes from the Tomb”. City Limits, 5-12 January 1989.

BUCKLEY, Steven. undated letter (c.1988). London: Les Coleman archive, private.

COLEMAN, Les (Ed). Anthony Earnshaw: The Imp of Surrealism.Sheffield: Research Group for Artists Publications, 2011.

EARNSHAW, Anthony. “Autobiographical Sketch”, version 1, 1987. In A View From Back O’ Town (catalogue to an exhibition of Earnshaw’s work 1945-1987). Leeds: City Art Gallery, 1987.

EARNSHAW, Anthony. “Autobiographical Sketch”, version 2 [online, accessed on April 23, 2011]. Available on the Web. URL <http://www.anthonyearnshaw.com/anthony-earnshaw.htm>

EARNSHAW, Anthony. “A Short History of Wokker”, [online, accessed on April 23, 2011]. Available on the Web. URL <http://www.anthonyearnshaw.com/a-short-history-of-wokker>

EARNSHAW, Gail. “The Boy in the Man”. In COLEMAN, Les (Ed). Anthony Earnshaw: The Imp of Surrealism.Sheffield: Research Group for Artists Publications, 2011, p.19-33.

EARNSHAW, Gail. Draft biography of Anthony Earnshaw, unfinished, no title, n.d., Coleman archive.

HUXLEY, David. Nasty Tales. Manchester: Critical Vision, 2002.

MELLY, George. “Anthony Earnshaw”. In A View From Back O’ Town (catalogue to an exhibition of Earnshaw’s work 1945-1987). Leeds: City Art Gallery, 1987.

MELLY, George. Paris and the Surrealists. London: Thames and Hudson, UK, 1991.

McKAY, George. Circular Breathing: The Cultural Politics of Jazz in Britain. Durham NC (USA): Duke University Press, 2005.

REMY, Michel. Surrealism in Britain. London: Ashgate, 1999.

ROSENKRANZ, Patrick. Rebel Visions. Seattle: Fantagraphics, 2008.

SABIN, Roger. “Wokker’s World”.In COLEMAN, Les (Ed). Anthony Earnshaw: The Imp of Surrealism.Sheffield: Research Group for Artists Publications, 2011, p. 79-91.

WALKER, Ian. So Exotic, So Homemade. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2007.

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Notes

1  Sections of this essay have been reworked from Sabin (2011), though the Coleman book appeared after the bulk of this essay was written.

2  A discussion on the “forum” section of Comic Book Resources (“the premier online comics magazine”) about what might constitute a surreal comic namechecks the following: Doom Patrol, Animal Man, Johnny the Homicidal Maniac, Flaming Carrot, Kabuki, Black Hole, Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron, Sweet Tooth, The Nobody, Bad Dog, Chronos ,The Unwritten, Rasl, Outlaw Nation, Vext, Young Liars , Sparta USA, The Damned, X-Force , Red Rocket 7 , Daytripper , Joe the Barbarian, The Mice Templar, Shuddertown, Jim, Frank, Krazy Kat, Rogan Gosh, Paradax, Stray Toasters, Swamp Thing, Promethea, and Madman (URL <http://forums.comicbookresources.com/showthread.php?t=319294>, accessed on April 23, 2011). After this essay was written, the Wikipedia entry on “Surrealist comics” was deleted on October, 16, 2011 with the following explanation: “There is no factual basis for this categorization, as none of these comic strips were created by people associated with the Surrealist movement. This categorization as "surrealist" is based on the non-encyclopedic interpretation of "surreal/surrealist/surrealistic" as anything weird, offbeat, crazy, absurd, or inexplicable. Such a wide and useless definition has no place here. None of these articles contain references that indicate a connection to Surrealism. Krazy Kat and Little Nemo were recognized, after the fact, as having similarities to Surrealism, but this is not the same thing. » (URL <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Categories_for_discussion/Log/2011_October_6#Category:Surrealist_comic_strips>).

3  The most sophisticated of these has been developed by scholar Pedro Moura, prototyped as a talk, “A Typology of Experimentation in Comics” (First International Conference on Comics and Graphic Novels, Instituto Franklin-UAH, Alcala de Henares, Spain, 11 November 2011).

4  The Barthes essay « La mort de l’auteur » was first published in France in 1967, but became widely known in English when collected in the anthology Image-Music-Text (Fontana Press, 1977).

5  For a good introduction to the American underground, see Rosenkranz (2008); for the British side of the story, see Huxley (2002). The 1960s/70s connections between countercultural art and surrealism have been under-explored: certainly, many poster artists and cartoonists were hailing Dali and Magritte as kindred spirits.

6  The history of strips and other illustrations appearing in the TES has yet to be written. The magazine (founded in 1910) split in two in 1971: The Times Educational Supplement, which served the primary and secondary education sector, and The Times Higher Educational Supplement (now Times Higher Education) which served the tertiary sector. Both have continued to feature strips, up to today’s very popular “PhD Comics” (See: URL <http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/story.asp?storyCode=405321&sectioncode=26> and <http://www.phdcomics.com/comics.php>). It is interesting to note that Wokker was first offered to sister magazine The Times Literary Supplement before going to the TES.

7  Krazy Kat is the obvious example, kept alive by William Randolph Hearst.

8  Which is not to say that psychedelia had nothing in common with surrealism – see footnote 5.

9  Thacker remains a mysterious figure, but there are copious sources on Earnshaw, including a book (Coleman, 2011) and a website (URL <http://www.anthonyearnshaw.com/>).There also exist various reviews (of work by Earnshaw and Earnshaw/Thacker), catalogue essays, mentions in books by George Melly and Michel Rémy, and other scattered sources. Earnshaw’s “A Short History of Wokker” appears on the website and in The Whistler, no 10, Spring 1996. His “Tony.Earnshaw Introduces Wokker to the Good People of Halifax” exists in draft form, presumably unpublished, and is not as detailed an account.

10  I am very grateful to Les Coleman, a friend of Earnshaw and fellow artist, for access to the archive. It is not complete, but does give a good sense of the Thacker-Earnshaw relationship. I am also grateful to Michael Shaw for access to the TES archive.

11  André Breton refers to “the marvellous” several times in the First Surrealist Manifesto (1924) available in translation online (URL <http://www.poetryintranslation.com/PITBR/French/Manifesto.htm>).

12  This was a view endorsed by Earnshaw, who claimed that when he discovered surrealism, it was “at its nadir”. (EARNSHAW, “A Short History of Wokker”). However, it is interesting to note that in the opinion of cultural historian Michel Rémy, “It was outside London that surrealist activity developed most during the war” (1999, p.220).

13  The introduction to this book usefully discusses the meaning of Englishness (as opposed to “Britishness”).

14  Edouard Léon Théodore Mesens, a Belgian artist, musician and writer, had been a major player in the Belgian Surrealist movement, and friend of René Magritte. He co-organised the London International Surrealist Exhibition in 1936, which some critics credit with “introducing” surrealism to Britain, and thereafter he settled in London, directing the London Gallery in Cork Street and later Brooke Street (which he co-ran after the war with Roland Penrose).

15  Different surrealist factions followed different socialist and anarchist ideologies. For example, in 1938, Breton signed a declaration to create an international Federation of Revolutionary and Independent Artists (see Rémy, 1999, p.19).

16  The Leeds exhibition also included a watercolour painting of Wokker, entitled “Wokker’s eyesight fails while he is guarding a factory on a tray” (1974).

17  “Musrum” is a play on the word “mushroom”, and again provoked curiosity about a possible psychedelic subtext. The book was followed by another Thacker-Earnshaw volume, Wintersol, in 1971.

18  Seven Secret Alphabets appeared in 1972.

19  Melly often namechecked comics, and for a while scripted the strip Flook in The Daily Mail.

20  Melly has referred to the early British followers of jazz and surrealism as an “underground” (in an article about Musrum in The Sunday Times, 1968), and cultural historians have connected such individuals with the protests that led up to Aldermaston, and to the 1960s counterculture (see, for example, McKay, 2005). However, they were too dispersed to be considered a “subculture” in the established (Cultural Studies) sense.

21  For a good selection of post-Thacker strips, see the Earnshaw website. The example where Wokker declares Pataphysics to be “THE science!” is perhaps symbolic of a new knowingness.

22  “Postmodern” is another difficult term that tends to be applied haphazardly. If, following writers like Lyotard, Harvey and Jameson, it means shifting identities, a de-centred view of the world, a sense of irony, unstable relationships, and confusions of time and space, maybe Wokker could be seen as such. But, then, so, too, could many of the other strips mentioned in this essay.

23  Indeed, this is exactly what I assumed when I first came across Wokker in the 1980s: when I eventually corresponded with Earnshaw in 1990 I was astonished to learn he was 66 and not 26.

24  Nuttall’s devotion to self-publishing and the small press was legendary. In the early 1960s, his publications provided an outlet for not just his own poems and writing, but also those of important American beat writers such as William Burroughs.

25  Wokker’s fine art connections continued in this period, and the Dean Clough Gallery, Halifax put on a show of selected strips in 1988.

26  The afterlife of Wokker included the section on the Earnshaw website, a set of eight postcards produced by Les Coleman in 2003, and an attempt to animate the strip in 2001 (by Dave Brunskill).

27  Pedro Moura, email discussion with the author, 16 November 2011.

28  Perhaps the connection goes further: Ernst’s work included a bird-like character, known as “Loplop” - the obviously onomatopoeic name having much in common with that of Wokker (I am grateful to the anonymous peer reviewer of this essay for pointing this out).

29  The most convenient place to see examples of Wokker at the moment is on the Earnshaw website (URL <http://www.anthonyearnshaw.com/>).

30  Ian Walker: “It would be impossible to claim that Surrealism in England can rival Surrealism in Paris (or indeed in Prague or Brussels)” (WALKER, 2007, p.5).

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Table des illustrations

Titre Image 1First Appearence
Crédits EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 8 October 1971. Image on copyright.
URL http://comicalites.revues.org/docannexe/image/918/img-1.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 496k
Titre Image 2
Crédits EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 24 March 1972. Image on copyright.
URL http://comicalites.revues.org/docannexe/image/918/img-2.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 676k
Titre Image 3
Crédits EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 26 November 1971. Image on copyright.
URL http://comicalites.revues.org/docannexe/image/918/img-3.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 660k
Titre Image 4
Crédits EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 10 December 1971. Image on copyright.
URL http://comicalites.revues.org/docannexe/image/918/img-4.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 676k
Titre Image 5
Crédits EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 15 September 1972. Image on copyright.
URL http://comicalites.revues.org/docannexe/image/918/img-5.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 652k
Titre Image 6
Crédits EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 3 December 1971. Image on copyright.
URL http://comicalites.revues.org/docannexe/image/918/img-6.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 764k
Titre Image 7
Crédits EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 18 February 1972. Image on copyright.
URL http://comicalites.revues.org/docannexe/image/918/img-7.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 652k
Titre Image 8Example of correspondence (c. 1968).
Crédits Image on copyright.
URL http://comicalites.revues.org/docannexe/image/918/img-8.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 588k
Titre Image 9
Crédits EARNSHAW, Anthony. THACKER, Eric. Wokker.In the Times Educational Supplement, 12 November 1971. Image on copyright.
URL http://comicalites.revues.org/docannexe/image/918/img-9.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 632k
Titre Image 10Example of correspondence (c. 1968), with George Melly (bottom left).
Crédits Image on copyright.
URL http://comicalites.revues.org/docannexe/image/918/img-10.jpg
Fichier image/jpeg, 1,1M
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Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Roger Sabin, « Wokker. Notes on a Surrealist comic strip », Comicalités [En ligne], Esthétiques, mis en ligne le 11 mai 2012, consulté le 24 avril 2014. URL : http://comicalites.revues.org/918 ; DOI : 10.4000/comicalites.918

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Auteur

Roger Sabin

Dr. Roger Sabin is Reader in Popular Culture at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design (University of the Arts, London). His books include Adult Comics: An Introduction (Routledge), and Comics, Comix and Graphic Novels (Phaidon). He serves on the editorial boards of five academic journals in the field, and he reviews graphic novels for the press and broadcast media.

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