Turing 100

Professor Jim Al Khalili, ERS Turing lecture 02

(Professor Jim Al-Khalili signing books after the Turing lecture)

On Thursday night I attended a special guest lecture at Edinburgh University’s George Square Theatre, organised by the Edinburgh Royal Society, with author, theoretical physicist and broadcaster (he’s presented some excellent science documentaries on the BBC and C4) Professor Jim Al-Khalili. It was part of a series of events going on this year to mark 100 years since one of the great minds of the 20th century, Alan Turing, was born. I’ve always been a huge admirer of Turing – the father of computing and Artificial Intelligence, working out systems on pencil and paper before he and his colleagues, along with the GPO’s hugely gifted electronic engineer Tommy Flowers, created the world’s first electronic computer, a device so secret it was classified for decades while publicly others took the glory for ‘first’ computers later. Because they used this to help break the Nazi Enigma codes, without which the Second World War might have taken many more years of hard struggle and countless thousands more lives. He and his Bletchley Park colleagues were, in a real sense, war heroes, just not the sort who carry a rifle into combat, but utterly essential to the defeat of the Axis and the safeguarding of free civilisation. Turing was also a gifted visionary who was able to conceive of using science and mathematics to model thought processes years before others, giving new pathways to exploring both computing technology then emerging as well as understanding more how the incredibly complex human brain works and how that could be applied to machines, if they too could be make to think, each step along that road revealing more about the astonishing complexity of our own minds than that of our complex technology.

Sadly in the 50s Turing, a homosexual man, was arrested, homosexuality being illegal at the time, stripped of his security clearance despite his wartime record and given a choice of chemical castration or prison. He took the former but was never the same; depressed he took his own life with an arsenic laced apple. So little appreciation from the government of the country he had helped save with his genius and dedication and a reminder today when we see some clergy and politicians making unsavoury remarks about gay people how such comments can lead to attitudes and actions which can take lives, to the detriment of all of society… Turing remains one of my scientific heroes, though, and I was pleased that a public campaign a couple of years ago resulted in the then Labour government of Gordon Brown publishing an official apology for the way Turing had been treated back in the Britain of the 50s.

Jer with Professor Jim Al Khalili
(my friend Jer with Jim after getting his copy of Jim’s latest book signed)

Women in Comics – Hysterical Women and Graphic Grrrlz in Edinburgh

Hysterical Women and Graphic Grrrlz Edinburgh Central Library 01

Last week I was lucky enough to catch a busy talk in Edinburgh’s Central Library, Hysterical Women and Graphic Grrrlz. Heather Middleton from the Glasgow Women’s Library and also a member of Glasgow-based all-female collective Team Girl Comic. Heather was giving a talk on the history of women in comics and while there is no way to fit all of that history into one talk Heather made a very fine attempt to give the audience a good overview that would put that female history of comics into some context that even audience members who weren’t very well versed in the medium (it was a mixed crowd of those with an interest in comics and those more interested in literature and gender studies) could get a decent handle on it and for those of us who do have some knowledge of comics history I can say from my own experience that Heather flagged some works I was familiar with but also managed to bring up some I hadn’t heard of before.

One of the first works Heather brought up was the famous very early comics work Ally Sloper, often credited to Victorian writer/artist Charles H Ross. I had some vague knowledge of the strip – I’d certainly heard of it and Ally himself is a pretty distinctive comics creation, very iconic (no wonder he expanded out into his own comic and was one of the early comics characters to rake in money through widescale merchandising too, such was his popularity). However I had no idea that Ross’ wife, French woman Emilie de Tessier, usually working under the pen name Marie Duval, worked on the strip inking then taking over the art duties fully for many years. And the reason I didn’t know that, Heather explained, is because she has been largely airbrushed out of the Ally Sloper story, right back during the height of Ally’s success, with things going as far as removing her initials from the artwork for collected editions in later years. A women comics creator was pretty unusual in the Victorian era, a woman comics artist who was behind a hugely successful creation that was a pop cultural icon was even more unusual. And yet she was effectively painted out of her own story…

Heather touched on other creators, contemporaries of the likes of George Herriman in the 1910s and 20s but who rarely seem to have achieved the same level of historical fame (or indeed beautifully produced modern archive edition collections that have become such a nice feature of the quality end of comics publishing today) and then the wartime creators, the women who, just like the women who relieved men from the factories by leaving their traditional roles as homemakers to to replace the male works, took over some of the load on strips during the war, including traditionally male strips such as adventure tales. Naturally most were expected to either return to being housewives or, if remaining in comics, to go back to working on more ‘womanly’ strips such as romance tales when the men came home.

Heather brought the history of women in comics up to date with some of the female creators of the Underground Comix days, contemporaries of Crumb et al and how even in those days when there was supposedly a move to equality many of those women found themselves in rampantly sexist situations, treated by the male cartoonists as the ‘little ladies’, often treated condescendingly leading to some setting up their own collectives and working on their own stuff (including the likes of Melinda Gebbie) and even then they could run into patriarchal walls with printers sometimes refusing to print their work for them, claiming it to be ‘obscene’ (some of the same printers happily printed male-based underground comix featuring giant phalluses but they deemed a scene of child birth in a woman-created comic to be beyond the pale, something echoed years later in a male-created comic, Marvelman/Miracleman, where some fans were outspoken about the inclusion of a birth scene but had no problem with the preceding violent scenes).

Hysterical Women and Graphic Grrrlz Edinburgh Central Library 02

(Heather during her talk in Central Library, pics from my Flickr)

Hysterical Women and Graphic Grrrlz Edinburgh Central Library 04

We came to the modern day with contemporary female comics creators, including the self-published creators and the collectives such as Team Girl Comic (who I saw flying the small press comics flag at Hi-Ex just recently), which Heather herself is a part of. And that brings me to a related topic – Team Girl Comic is running a Kickstarter to raise funds to help publish issue 5, so please do consider giving them some support (and of course, spread the word about the fundraiser).

Hi-Ex 2012 024
(Team Girl Comic at Hi-Ex in March)

And on another related note Heather told us that the Glasgow Women’s Library, like many libraries, is very open to the comics medium and indeed they actively encourage donations of relevant work by female creators or female oriented works, including those from the small press, self published scene. I know plenty of such creators read the blog regularly, so when you are next publishing some of your work why not consider donating a copy to be archived at the Glasgow Women’s Library, where it will be looked after and made available for reading and for research. I think it would be terrific if the female creators in our excellent small press community supported that initiative.

(cover design for Team Girl Comic #5 by Colleen Campbell)

This event report was originally penned for the Forbidden Planet blog