“Hmm. Don’t you understand? Think about it –we have no skyscrapers! How can you have American style super heroes in England?”
Those were the words of a Marvel UK editor (Dave White) back in the 1980s as I sat across from him having travelled from Bristol to London at his suggestion to discuss new projects. About a month later a very senior Marvel UK editor responded in the same words but adding “That is why UK comics have never had super heroes.”
Firstly, as I pointed out to Dave White, we are the UK. Britain. You think of characters for a comic as being English you are excluding Wales, Scotland and Ireland. Why?
My response to the senior editor is probably why things went a little “odd” work-wise. My first response was “So, what exactly is Marvel UK publishing? And Power Comics (Odhams) before it? And…” I went on to rattle off a very, very long list of British super characters going back to the 1940s. I think I ticked him off. Really, he should have known better though, in one respect, he was right.
British comics never had super heroes.
Before you start thinking that I’m on new medications and answering “Yes” and “No” at the same time allow me to explain.
Tim (Kelly’s Eye) Kelly travelled the world and even in time and space at one point and was totally indestructible. He was not a super hero.
Clem Macy, television news reporter had a costumed archer alter ego…The Black Archer. He was not a super hero.
Cathy had amazing cat-like abilities and wore a costume. She was not a super heroine.
William and Kathleen Grange were incredible acrobats and wore costumes as Billy the Cat and Katie The Cat. They were not super heroes.
In fact, for my graphic novel featuring many old IPC and Fleetway costumed characters, The Looking Glass, I noted several times that the characters were not super heroes. In the UK we tended to call them “costumed adventurers” or even “masked crime fighters” but not super heroes.
Some, of course, were…uh..”revived” for the Wildstorm Studios Albion mini series which had great art but, sadly, showed a lack of any real knowledge of the characters by the writers –which they admitted to. In comics you get paying work you take it!
Characters such as Adam Eterno, the focal point in the Looking Glass story had no choice and were at times almost anti-heroes. Whereas The Spider had a choice of being a master crook and then changing sides (basically all ego driven), Eterno did not. He was cursed to be taken by the mists of time from one period to another where he encountered Spanish Conquistadores, pirates, sorcerers and even modern day (well, 1970s) crooks.
Olaf (“Loopy”) Larsen a rather meek school teacher found the Viking helmet of one of his ancestors and, donning it (that’s putting it on his head) became a super strong, flying Viking hero…The Phantom Viking. There are stories of The Phantom Viking rescuing ships and much more and not a skyscraper in sight.
The great exponents of British roof-top crime-busting were, first, Billy The Cat and later Katie The Cat. Running across the rooftops and leaping the often not so great gaps between one row of terraced houses and another, the duo were the fictional ancestors of today’s urban free-style runners/jumpers –examples found here:
To most people who never get to see the rooves of terraced houses they assume they are all steep and sloping. However, having on two occasions chased someone across terraced root-tops I can tell you there is plenty of room to move about (though at my age I now look back and get nauseous over that memory!).
Later, in the 1970s, William Farmer became the costumed crime-fighter known as The Leopard From Lime Street. As one Fleetway boss told me (later confirmed by artist Mike Western) “Thomson had a schoolboy who fights crooks in a costume and if Billy the Cat was popular I was sure we could do better!”
Interestingly, in the Billy The Cat series he was later to be hunted as a vigilante by authorities who did not like what he was doing. Likewise, The Leopard was also hunted down at one point. In fact, a number of British comic crime-fighters found themselves not just ducking the crooks out for revenge but also the very side they were fighting for!
Towns, cities, villages, countryside, coastal locations –all featured in some very fun stories that endure in the memory to this day. And not a bloody skyscraper in sight!
When UK creators were recruited to save the ailing US comic companies such as DC in the 1980s (I was at those UK comic art conventions watching how desperate they were to recruit British talent –and in some cases introduced both parties to each other) the idea of outlawing super heroes and tracking them down so they could be arrested was a new concept. In the UK we’d been doing that since the 1940s ( thanks to the creators who churned out material for publishers such as Gerald Swan)!
The mistake in the minds of publishers is that they equate costumed crime-fighters with skyscrapers and the United States. Despite the long history of such characters in the UK going back to the Boys Papers of the 1900-1930s.
What it says, really, is “This is just a job. I don’t care about comics history.”
D. C. Thomson (may they be forever cursed in the hallowed halls of British Comics Hell) have enough characters to produce good costumed-crime-fighter comics. The same applied to IPC who appear to have now taken the stance (a letter to me from senior management dated 19th July, 2011) “We were once publishing comics but that was over 30 years ago and have no further interest in comics.” Of course, had a rich stable of characters.
I have no doubt at all that a good “super hero” comics could work in the UK but so few Independent Comics writers/publishers seem to be able to produce an obscenities free scriptthat does not also include over the top violence and rape –the “Millar-Ennis-Morrison Legacy (MEML).”
But let’s mention, I really must, two shining examples of British “Super Heroes” by British creators that have excellent plotting, story and action without having to resort to the MEML.
The first is, naturally, Paul Grist’s Jack Staff. Okay, he’s never accepted my offer to interview him in the last decade but I’ll not hold that against him! When I first saw Jack Staff I thought “**** that anatomy is really off!” I bought a copy. I’m a comics bitch, I just can’t help it.
I read through issue 1 and do you know what? I..I..deep breath…I enjoyed it! There it’s out now! The anatomy did not put me off and, as the manager of Forbidden Planet (Bristol) said “It doesn’t make a blind bit of difference –it’s so enjoyable!” With references to old British TV comedy series and so much more each issue of Jack Staff was a must read. There was, I must point out here, a major flaw in each issue. There were not enough pages!
And while Grist takes a break from Jack Staff he came up with a new series –Mud-Man (which should not be confused with my German character Schlamm Mann –mud-man!). Lovely stuff but, again, the major fault of not enough pages but maybe that is why this works: it is almost episodic like old British weekly strips…but with more pages…okay. Grist wins.
Then we have, and I have to say this on bended knees and in very humble tone…Nigel Dobbyn. When someone told me that he was drawing Billy The Cat I remember thinking to myself “I wonder whether his art style is any different than when he was drawing for Super Adventure Stories?” (a 1980s comic zine). I opened up the comic and a big thought balloon appeared above my head in which was written in bold Comic Sans “WOW!”
The style and colouring I had not seen outside of European comics (say Cyrus Tota’s work on Photonik). After that I never missed an issue and I made a point of grabbing The Beano Annual as soon as it appeared in shops. But with this incredible talent working for them did Thomson take advantage? No, they did something ensuring he would not work on new strips for them. The story can be found here:
You want to see how good Dobbyn is? Visit his website which has great art on show including Billy The Cat colour pages:
Dobbyn even re-introduced (with help from scripter Kev F. Sutherland, of course) General Jumbo but as The General. In fact, you go over those issues and I can see why so many people were telling me that they only bought copies for Billy The Cat. I could drool on and wax lyrical for hours about Dobbyn’s style and colouring.
Now here is the real kicker. Two talents such as Grist and Dobbyn whom any UK publisher (I know –“Who??”) should be fighting, spitting and kicking to get their hands on but are they? Nope. And while Grist publishes his books via Image Comics you have to wonder why Marvel or DC have not tried to get him on a title? Could it be his style is just not understandable by people in US Comics such as Joe “I’ll sell that for a Dollar” Quesada or Dan “I’ve had another brilliant idea on how to destroy DC” Didio? What of Dobbyn, then?
I know that if as a publisher I had the money I’d be employing both full time!!
I need to stop mentioning Dobbyn now as my knees hurt (a lot) and it’s hard typing from this position.
What both creators have shown is that there really do not have to be skyscrapers for a “super hero.” There is enough car crime, drug crime…violent crime of most types going on in the UK and believe it or not none involve a single skyscraper. Incredible, isn’t it?
Also, the UK is rich in legends, myths, fairy tales and much more that are just crying out to be included in storylines. The reason the Americans and other comic readers world-wide like UK strips is because they are uniquely British. In India, particularly in Southern India, The Steel Claw, Robot Archie, The Spider and many others are still very popular in reprint form over 35 years since they last appeared in print here.
Of course, now that the Evil Empire (Disney) has extended its stranglehold on Marvel (Panini) UK nothing new from the UK is allowed –though why doesn’t Panini with all its international branches pull in some new characters/books of their own? Oh. Its cheaper tp publish reprint material, isn’t it? I can be so silly!
Black Tower Comics has published a wide range of comics and the costumed crime-fighters (or even non-costumed in the case of Krakos) are the most popular.
So the market is there but where are the moneymen, the backers needed to help revive the corpse that is British comics so that it can proudly boast an industry once more that takes advantage of talents such as Grist, Dobbyn and Jon Haward?
However improbable British super heroes might seem to sum I can tell you they are not. There is a history going back 80 years and even longer if you include the Penny Dreadfuls of the Victorian era.
Here endeth the sermon.