I followed Bagnall's work into the early 1990s, and then lost track of him until 2003, when Kingly Books published a collection of his comics, Don't Tread on My Rosaries (follow that link and one of the excerpted reviews you'll see, the Jockey Slut one, was written by me). Shortly after that John self-published three mini-comics: Get Yourself a Gobstopper, Double Woodwork and Bushels of Coalsmoke (the last of which, again, I reviewed, this time on small press blog Bugpowder). And it's those three comics – plus an earlier small press publication from 2000, A Nation of Shopkeepers, which I think John himself sent to me – that together represent a clarification of his worldview, a distillation of his various concerns – Britishness, Catholicism, colloquialisms, signs, architecture – down to their essential essence.
The earliest of those comics, A Nation of Shopkeepers, is also the most unusual. In fact it's not really a comic at all; rather it's a series of scenes from British shops from an unspecified, but likely 1960s/'70s, period. Most, if not all, of those types of retail establishments still exist in some form today, but they're either utterly transformed (record shops, toy shops), increasingly endangered (barbers, butchers) or virtually vanished and then reappeared again in an ironic form (ice cream parlours). Bagnall's drawings spring from a peculiarly British experience of retail far removed from today's malls and pedestrianised pound shop-infested parades; one of local shops, small town high streets and shopkeepers whose names you know (and who know your name in return). This isn't merely an exercise in nostalgia, however; there is, I think, more going on than that.
Bagnall's intentions come further into focus with that trio of mid-noughties mini-comics. Each of the three features a "Disappearing Phrases" spread as its opener, wherein Bagnall presents one-panel scenarios similar to those in A Nation of Shopkeepers, but broadening out from just shop-set scenes to include pubs, parks, fetes and working class homes. The centre of attention in each panel is a character either verbalising or thinking a British – sometimes even an English, or northern English – colloquialism, but the incidental details are almost as important: a model steam train on a table; a pie shop in the background – the minutiae of the everyday.
There's more of this detailing of British idiosyncrasies elsewhere in the comics. Double Woodwork includes a brilliant four-panel page about the older gentleman's bizarre propensity for whistling, notably at public urinals, and there's a wonderfully silent survey of bleak industrial estates later in that same issue.
The closing four-page story in Bushels of Coalsmoke, "Police Bottle", highlights a once-popular remedy for colds that's since been completely forgotten, at least to my knowledge. And that, I think, is the key to Bagnall's work. His comics aren't simply amusing little vignettes about funny Brits and their funny ways (although they do work on that level); they're snapshots of very real people and places that are in similarly very real danger of vanishing from the record. The "Disappearing Phrases" title is apt: what Bagnall is doing is cataloguing the kinds of things that could quite easily slip through the cracks; the sayings and small details of 20th century British working class life. These little asides and quiet vignettes add colour to a past that can seem remote, conveying the kind of seemingly insignificant yet ultimately vitally-important-to-our-understanding information about people's day-to-day lives that might not be captured in photographs or other documentary footage.
Of course, if that is the purpose of Bagnall's comics, then that begs the question: is a small press comic with a run of around a hundred copies really the best way to document these things? That's quite possibly a poser that John himself has considered, as since 2006 he's been posting some of his comics and drawings on his blog, along with photographs of hand-painted signs, run-down buildings, and anything else that catches his eye. But as accessible and all-pervasive as the internet has become, it's still strangely comforting to know that there are also a small number of no doubt treasured (mine certainly are), printed-on-paper mini-comics and graphic novels containing these all-too-human observations.
(All images © John Bagnall)
Notes from the Small Press 1: Fast Fiction Presents the Elephant of Surprise
Notes from the Small Press 2: Monitor's Human Reward by Chris Reynolds
Notes from the Small Press 3: Small Pets
Notes from the Small Press 4: Anais in Paris by Mardou
Notes from the Small Press 6: Ed Pinsent's Illegal Batman and Jeffrey Brown's Wolverine: Dying Time
Notes from the Small Press 7: The Comix Reader #1
Notes from the Small Press 8: A Help! Shark Comics Gallery
Notes from the Small Press 9: Some Gristavision Comics by Merv Grist
Notes from the Small Press 10: Some Sav Sadness Comics by Bob Lynch