The other day, we were reading about Cafe Sperl in Vienna, because... well, you'll find out why soon enough. The Lonely Planet review of the cafe has a curiously vague final sentence: "We know it's had some horrible customers in the past, but even that can't ruin Sperl's charm." There's a limited number of horrible Austrians they could be referring to, and a wee bit of investigation proved our suspicions to be correct: Adolf Hitler used to go there. But it reminded me of another appearance of Hitler in a cafe: in a 1989 British comic strip, which depicted him in his twenties plotting world domination from a Liverpool teashop.
Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell's The New Adventures Of Hitler has been out of print ever since its initial publication. Because of its unavailability, and out of disrespect for the reasons why it's unavailable, I have no alternative but to recommend that you commit Internet Piracy by using the following links to read chapters 1-6 and chapters 7-12. Note that each of those links will pull up a page with about 3Mb of images on it, so be sure you want to do that before you click. And if you're not sure whether you want to click or not, here's why you should.
Assuming you choose to believe Adolf Hitler's sister-in-law, then apparently the Fuhrer really did live in Liverpool between 1912 and 1913, staying with his half-brother Alois and family in an attempt to avoid conscription. Comics writer Grant Morrison took that basic premise and ran wild with it, producing a 48-page fantasia on Hitler's life that he gave to regular collaborator Steve Yeowell to draw. In 1989 it was serialised in a Scottish magazine called Cut, where it incurred the wrath of co-editor and Hue and Cry vocalist Pat Kane, who insisted the comic promoted fascism. The following year it had a UK-wide outing in Crisis, the lefty adult spinoff from 2000AD, only for the controversy to crank up all over again with accusations of Morrison actually being a Nazi. In the subsequent decade and a half, all attempts to republish the strip have failed, and these days Yeowell suspects that the original colour artwork doesn't even exist any more.
Which is a crying shame, because The New Adventures Of Hitler is ripe for rediscovery, if only to document for posterity what a tool Pat Kane is. His argument appears to be this: the strip doesn't show Hitler actually engaging in acts of evil, therefore it condones his actions in later life. Which wilfully ignores the basic truth that screams from every page: Hitler is shown to be completely batshit insane. To his relatives and the people he meets on a day to day basis, he's a sullen and rather unpleasant young man who refuses to engage with the outside world, preferring to live in one of his own. That's probably documented fact. What Morrison and Yeowell do, however, is to show you what that world looks like to Adolf, with suitably satiric overstatement. Morrissey and John Lennon serenade him from inside his wardrobe. He hears mysterious voices making loud accusations about his genitalia, three decades before it became fashionable to do so. And John Bull himself appears to Adolf to help him on his quest to find the Holy Grail.
It's this last strand of the story that leads to Morrison's bleak conclusion: that the seeds of Hitler's philosophy were sown during his year in England. The figure of John Bull - who seems most comfortable when speaking in the voice of a 1980s Sun editorial - points out to Hitler that he could learn a lot from British history. "Believe me, there's not much you can tell the English about tyrannising. We've got the Empire to prove it." One or two of the references have worn badly - Bull's lament for Queen Victoria, "that's what this country needs: a mad vicious bitch in the driving seat", completely dates this as late 1980s - but for the most part, Morrison's thesis still holds depressingly true.
Yeowell's black and white drawings show his usual skill at storytelling, even when depicting Morrison's wildest flights of fancy. But the art escalated to a whole other level in its Crisis reprint. A team of colourists led by another wildly talented artist - Nick Abadzis, whose beautifully observed Hugo Tate must be due for reappraisal by now - avoided the obvious approach of simply colouring in Yeowell's pictures, and used the emerging computer technologies to layer berserk collages of imagery on top of them. The fragmented mindscape of Hitler is even more vividly depicted in this version, as the disconnect between colour and linework becomes more and more extreme until, by the end, the final page's panels have images from the first page bleeding through them. Colourists rarely get the respect they deserve in comics reviews, and the work of Abadzis and crew deserves more respect than most.
The New Adventures Of Hitler may have a jokey title, and there are certainly laughs aplenty to be had from it: both in the bathetic portrayal of the young Hitler as just another one of Morrison's Neurotic Boy Outsiders, and in the satirical extremes of the depiction of his descent into insanity. But it still manages to send chills down your spine at all the right moments, culminating in the revelation that it's more the story of England than it is of Hitler. It may only exist as a handful of ropey scans on the internet these days, but in that form it's still lasted longer than Pat Kane's career as a meaningful cultural force: maybe that's the best we can hope for.