Time to digress again – and why not? As with the B word last year, each post about Identity Politics or the pandemic requires at least 48 hours’ breathing space before my exhausted ire can summon up the requisite energy for a fresh assault on the subject, so today’s digression treads a familiar path – if taking an unusual starting point. Anyway, as a small child I resided in a ‘Coronation Street’-style neighbourhood in which the traditional corner shop run by a grumpy old man was still a permanent fixture; for those kids with an appetite for escapism that couldn’t be satisfied by penny sweets, these claustrophobic emporiums often included a revolving rack crammed with American comic-books featuring eye-catching covers designed to provoke the pestering of purses in the possession of mothers. These glossy imports were also a little pricier than their home-grown equivalents on account of the full colour contents, so it helped to have a few good deeds in the bank.

The October 1971 issue of ‘Jimmy Olsen’ (subtitled ‘Superman’s Pal’, just in case the reader didn’t realise) had a US cover price of 25₵, but one that featured the UK price of 7½p stamped on it – presumably by customs & excise. Such purchases were something of a treat on account of the cost, but children tend to value their treats – or did when they were few and far between – and this particular treat imprinted itself on my consciousness via its characteristically vivid illustrations by the great Jack Kirby. The story as best I can remember it involved the Man of Steel (Jimmy Olsen’s pal, lest the reader forgot) somehow stumbling upon an Earth-like world plagued by characters resembling the classic Universal Studios stable of horrors – Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Werewolf, etc. – which had evolved for real on account of old movies being beamed onto the planet from outer space and taken as a design for life from the Gods.

As was commonplace in the comics industry back then, good ideas tended to regularly recur when the author ran out of new ones; this plot was a rehash by Jack Kirby of a ‘Fantastic Four’ story he’d co-penned in the 60s, though that one concerned a parallel world developed along the lines of 1920s Prohibition-era Chicago, a planet evolving into a society run by gangsters. I suppose one could say the story was a sharp satire on the way in which cinema influences actions in the real world as some imitate what they see on screen and then cinema gets the blame – an accusation that was certainly made in the 30s and 40s whenever certain crimes were said to be inspired by a specific film. The irony here was that the Golden Age of the Hollywood gangster picture – primarily the province of Warner Brothers and one that made Edward G Robinson, James Cagney and George Raft household names – was born of holding a mirror up to the contemporary criminal element; art imitated life and then life imitated art.

The only reason I’m thinking of this is due to the ongoing narrative of my DVD lockdown library once again. Having been through every TV series on the shelf, I’ve just moved onto movies and I fortunately have an abundance of these films, most of which I haven’t watched for several years. The gangster flicks in the collection lean heavily towards the pre-war monochrome ones, especially if Cagney stars. I find him a mesmerising, incredibly charismatic actor whose on-screen presence transcends all the famous tics and gestures that were as crucial to every 1970s TV impressionist’s act as Frank Spencer impersonations. When I was a kid, Cagney was still one of the world’s most instantly recognisable movie stars, even if he’d long since retired from the business by then; regular screenings of his old films dominated BBC2’s ‘Saturday Cinema’ institution, the sole alternative to wall-to-wall sport during my childhood. His electrifying performances in classics such as ‘Public Enemy’, ‘Angels with Dirty Faces’, ‘The Roaring Twenties’ and ‘White Heat’ aren’t remotely stagey, even though they pre-date the Method school; he so convinces as a cold-eyed hard man that it’s no surprise he struggled to escape the typecasting these roles inevitably led to.

‘White Heat’, the movie climaxing with the legendary line ‘Look ma, top of the world!’ as Cagney’s psychotic crook with an Oedipus Complex, Cody Jarrett, is poised to be blown to smithereens, had elements of the gangster picture of the 1930s, but brought it firmly into the present day – 1949 – by incorporating tropes of Film Noir, the genre that had taken the crime story down an intriguing dark alley. In Noir, the focus shifted from the gangster to the private eye or police detective, and the main obstacle to nailing the bad guy tended to be the femme fatale, an alluring female figure of ambiguous moral character who often ensnared both hero and villain along the way. The femme fatale was the talkies’ successor to silent cinema’s bad girl, the Vamp, and provided numerous actresses with an entrée into the A-list; indeed, so career-defining did these roles become for some of them that it proved difficult to evade the long shadow they cast. The extensive attention to lighting that Hollywood reserved for its female stars at the time – the kind we’d now only really associate with still photography – helped seal the images in iconic amber forevermore.

Although Barbara Stanwyck in 1944’s ‘Double Indemnity’ gloriously exposed the avaricious bitch at the dark heart of the femme fatale and Rita Hayworth in 1946’s ‘Gilda’ portrayed the character at her most breathtakingly vivacious, my own personal favourite is Veronica Lake, she of the famous peek-a-boo haircut that was much later taken to a lop-sided extreme by Phil Oakey of The Human League. The trio of movies Lake made alongside Alan Ladd between 1942 and 1946 – ‘This Gun for Hire’, ‘The Glass Key’ and ‘The Blue Dahlia’ – saw this exquisitely elegant, languid blonde bombshell make the femme fatale as alluring as ever but gave the archetype a sympathetic, human quality that made it possible to fall in love with her without the perennial worry of waking up after a night of passion to discover she’d done a runner with your wallet. Veronica Lake undoubtedly has the femme fatale look, but her disarming ‘girly’ voice suggests a soft centre beyond the untouchable exterior; one gets the impression that the femme fatale front is a tool she’s developed in order to survive.

Having established herself as one of Hollywood’s most distinctive screen Goddesses, Veronica Lake then had to forego the hairstyle that made her stand out at the request of the US Government, concerned that its popularity could prove a safety hazard for women working dangerous machinery during wartime. However, so associated was she with this specific look that its voluntary sacrifice to the war effort actually had a detrimental effect on her career. She also suffered a couple of personal tragedies in the loss of a child and divorce; she then began drinking heavily, perhaps as a response to the less-than-sympathetic treatment stars received in the era of the all-powerful studio system, gaining a reputation for being ‘difficult’ on set. Offers dried up, and by the early 50s she was declared bankrupt, fleeing to New York where she descended into a sad cycle of drunkenness and dead-end jobs. She resuscitated her career in periodic bouts on stage and even played Blanche DuBois in Bromley in 1969. I so want to believe a certain resident of Bromley at that time saw this performance and was then inspired to copy her old image for the LP he released the following year, ‘The Man Who Sold the World’; but we’ll probably never know.

Veronica Lake died in 1973 aged 50 of acute kidney injury after having been diagnosed with cirrhosis of the liver. But did the Veronica Lake who still smoulders as the celluloid embodiment of my kind of woman ever really die? Of course not, no more than Cagney or Bogart or any of them; they’re immortal – and just as they wove a fair few dreams that offered something other than Frank Bough or Dickie Davies on drizzly Saturday afternoons 40-odd years ago, they retain the magical power to divert and distract when it’s most needed. For that alone, those of us in the gutter looking up at the stars are eternally indebted.

© The Editor


Considering the current domination of mainstream cinema by the superhero genre, one might understandably imagine the industry that spawned this multi-million dollar franchise is one of the few right now with a guaranteed healthy future. Outside of its dedicated fan-base, most would come to that natural conclusion. Speaking as someone for whom the American comic book industry played a significant part in fuelling nascent childhood imagination, it’s not really one I’ve stayed in touch with much as an adult, so I pretty much thought the same. I’ve purchased the occasional graphic novel in recent years, though these have tended to be non-superhero titles, such as Alan Moore and Melinda Gebbie’s breathtakingly beautiful take on erotica, ‘The Lost Girls’. I’ve no interest in the Hollywood incarnation of the superhero either, though it’s worth pointing out that this began in earnest when Marvel Comics was purchased by the Disney Corporation.

However, what has been a marriage made in money-spinning heaven for Tinsel Town accountants has helped kill the comic book, along with other crucial factors all-too familiar where most branches of entertainment and the arts are concerned. But let’s just backtrack a little.

The rise of the comic book as a cultural touchstone in the 1940s and 50s completed the triumvirate of creative outlets absorbed and transformed into a global phenomenon by American energy in the American century – the other two being cinema and popular music; as with those, the comic book industry was built via a combination of maverick visionaries and opportunistic shysters; the creators were usually ripped-off by the ‘dollar-signs-for-eyes’ philistines assembling the talent, but the coming together of these uneasy bedfellows worked. Indeed, the greatest and most durable products of all three industries – movies, music, and comics – appeared when the friction between art and business was at its height.

The nature of comic book distribution – which had mainly targeted newsstands and drug stores – altered in the 1970s as a large chunk of the traditional prepubescent readership didn’t grow out of the habit once it grew up. As well as a maturity of content in the actual product, the change was also reflected in the growth of the specialist comic store, something that increased in its importance to the industry throughout the 80s and 90s. By the dawn of the 21st century, comic book distribution had become something of a monopoly, in the exclusive hands of a single company recognising the profitable relationship between manufacturer and comic store. Independent creators may have been prized out of the mainstream market at the expense of Marvel and DC dominance, but the two giants of the US comic book industry were at least supplying product the reader wanted to buy. And then everything went tits-up.

In line with other creative industries faced with the perceived threat of the internet, the Silicon Valley manual was adopted as a business model; and this came with a political narrative. So, there was a swift sea change around a decade ago which has now bore extremely poisonous fruit that places the survival of the mainstream comic book industry in peril. And the industry did this to itself via the most demented act of hara-kiri ever committed in the name of diversity. Under online attack from the usual suspects, the industry dispensed with hiring on the basis of talent and/or merit and began to invite the very people that had been virulently critical of it to essentially take control. And we’re talking the nastiest, most extreme Identity Politics hardliners – men-hating radical feminists, fanatical far left cheerleaders and Salem-like finger-pointers who see racism everywhere; basically, the kind of people who think Antifa and Extinction Rebellion are freedom fighters and Trump is Hitler. And the mainstream comics industry put them in charge. Guess what happened.

As with most of these first-world activists, the majority emanate from a middle-class background of privilege and elitist university education, and have a compulsion to offload their white guilt onto everyone else; in the case of the comics industry, that includes the audience. Contempt for the readership has been evident from the off. The customer is always wrong where these enlightened souls are concerned; otherwise, why should the customer react so negatively to the wholesale rebranding of decades-old superhero titles to suit the new religion? Overnight, long-established and iconic male characters had sex changes or were suddenly gay or black or Asian or…you get the picture. The toxic masculinity of the white superhero patriarchy had to be eradicated. The narcissistic arrogance of the Woke writers and artists recruited by Marvel in particular has meant any justifiable criticism of their woeful output by those who can see straight through it is naturally ‘Nazi’.

Badly misjudging the audience that has kept the comics industry afloat throughout every economic downturn, the box-ticking minority have alienated the majority by using the comic book as a platform for preaching a political agenda that has nothing to do with what made the industry or what makes the public want to invest in it. Someone of a paranoid persuasion prone to conspiracy theories could discern a master-plan behind this, of course. They could cite what Identity Politics has already done to ‘Star Wars’ or ‘Star Trek’ and could also highlight the fact that Brits have nothing to be smug about by pointing at the appalling decline and fall of ‘Doctor Who’. Each of these long-running and successful franchises have lost their (largely, though not exclusively) male fan-bases as a consequence. After all, if one wanted to destroy, say, McDonalds, then make the president of the company a hardcore vegan and see what happens.

When a successful business prioritises those whose talent is mediocre at best but whose political beliefs chime with the consensus, it is flirting with disaster. But the situation is particularly poignant for the comics industry, as the monopoly employed by the sole distributing middle-man between manufacturer and store won’t accept a sale-or-return system, which means comic stores have been losing money at an alarming rate since this madness took hold; nobody wants to buy the useless new Woke titles Marvel and DC are churning out, and the prime outlet for the product is being run into the ground as a result.

Faced with a crucial link in the chain teetering on the brink of collapse, the industry’s reaction has been to bury its head in the sand and add further rich boys and girls for whom this comic thing is a nice little hobby to the payroll. DC has just published ‘Gotham High’, which is Batman retold as a high-school soap, penned by an author of ‘Twilight’-style Young Adult fiction, whereas Marvel announced a new, non-binary superhero team many mistook for a premature April Fool’s, featuring a duo called (I kid you not) Snowflake and Safe Space. The only thing that has prevented these wastes of paper being delivered to comic stores, where they would no doubt remain unsold, is a little virus by the name of Covid-19. The sole distributor has ceased all operations and the Woke crowd have created a hashtag advising everyone to ‘down pencils’. A pity it took the coronavirus to down them.

The crowd-funded independent creators whose product has an enthusiastic audience sell the kind of numbers that Marvel and DC can only dream of now; and one wonders if they deliberately hired such poison to kill off the comic book side of their operations so they could focus exclusively on the movie side. That’s not much consolation for the owners of comic stores as they watch their livelihoods go up in smoke, nor is it for those who once derived enjoyment from such toxic entertainment as movies, music or comic books. But, hey, the objective of the revolution has been achieved.

© The Editor


A year ago this week, I smoked my last cigarette; a recent clean of the spines displayed on my bookshelf reminded me how my world used to be coated in a stinky and sickly golden smudge that unknowingly proved to be as great a social deterrent as BO. But it’s only when you sometimes come across evidence of how something used to be that you belatedly realise how much it has changed. Example: A couple of years back, I purchased an archive copy each of the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph; both were printed in 1977. Twenty-odd years of colour newspapers utilising digital technology had served to erase the aesthetic memory of how Fleet Street produce once looked, felt and smelt. The bright clean reproduction of images we’ve become accustomed to (if we still bother with a physical edition, of course) when stood next to the murky monochrome equivalent from forty years ago reveals the latter as having a closer resemblance to a poor photocopy.

The old hot metal printing technique also gave newspapers a distinctive odour as well as leaving its imprint on your fingers if you held a paper in your hands for more than five minutes. Newspapers were relatively cheap in relation to other goods, but had they retailed for pennies exceeding single figures, it probably would have been taking the piss when they were hardly works of art. They were simple, unpretentious and instantly disposable objects, hence their day-after demotion to the chip shop, so it’s no wonder they were something everybody could afford. Mind you, dailies and Sundays sold so much back then that the proprietors didn’t need to charge more than 10p to make a handsome profit.

As a child, there was a strict dividing line between what parents read and what children read. Comics were for us, newspapers were for them – oh, and dad also had a few…erm…‘magazines’ stashed in a secret place that we weren’t supposed to know about. This arrangement suited my tastes, for the content of newspapers was extremely dull to my prepubescent eye bar one page – no, not the third one, but a page somewhere near the back-end of the publication, just before the sports section. This page was the nearest a newspaper would get to a comic, even if the parade of three (or four) panel strips exhibited humour not quite as basic as that in the Dandy or the Beano.

The paper of choice in our household was the Daily Mirror. Its strips included space and time-travelling strongman Garth (who always somehow seemed to visit planets whose female natives had yet to discover bras), old-school northern pisshead layabout Andy Capp (who had a fag permanently glued to his lower lip), The Perishers (which appeared to be a British take on Peanuts), and Bill Tidy’s surreal The Fosdyke Saga. All the national dailies were defined in the child’s mind by which comic strips they featured. The Daily Express could boast Rupert Bear; the Mail had Fred Basset; the Sun had Hagar the Horrible, and so on. Even the local paper had its notable cartoon characters: As well as hosting US strip Marmaduke (a Great Dane I often confused with Scooby Doo), the Yorkshire Evening Post had the bizarre home-grown character known as Alfie Apple (Yes, a walking/talking apple).

Unlike my parents, I didn’t grow up to become a loyal subscriber to any particular paper and I gradually lost touch with the strips; whenever I’ve caught a glimpse of them in recent years the inevitable addition of garish colour has, to me, removed part of their appeal. The loss of their black & white-ness is something that appears to diminish their charm, in the same way that it would be impossible to imagine any of those early 60s ‘Kitchen Sink’ movies in Technicolor. There also seems to be fewer of them, with one of the key tools in securing the next generation of readers now marginalised, mirroring the suicidal dismissal of journalists who were experts in their chosen fields, something which suggested the editors of the papers had already given up and stopped believing there was any sort of future for the medium.

As has been pointed out on several occasions here recently, the allure of the recent past and the rose-tinted hues of unavoidable nostalgia can stretch into many unexpected areas. For some reason the old newspaper strip has fired my imagination of late, and in my increasingly desperate quest to seek constant distractions from the sinkhole I fell into eight months ago, one distraction I seized upon was to pay homage to the genre by making up my own strip. So I have done. Aesthetically, it belongs to a lost world, so wouldn’t be at home in the current excuse for a format that no longer really exists. Instead, I went straight to what used to be a commercial offshoot for the already-proven success – the collected strips in book form. As the book only contains 28 separate and self-contained three-panel strips (albeit every single strip in existence to date), I’m regarding this as ‘the pilot episode’. It may never be granted a networked series, but it’s out there for me to at least try.

I’m English and I was the companion to a cat for eighteen years. These are two things I know about. Therefore, I created a cat with a suitably traditional English name – Jack – and gave him a range of familiar English characteristics to add to his own archetypal feline qualities. I gave him a best mate, a girlfriend and a nemesis. I also gave him an ‘owner’ we never see, just as adults were always absent from the world of Charlie Brown. Unlike Felix or Top Cat, he walks on all fours, but he talks like us. Be a pretty dull strip if he didn’t.

He’s not particularly original; after all, it’s not as if cats have never been turned into cartoon characters before. And I’m not an especially gifted draughtsman either; the drawings are crude and sketchy, but I could say that maybe adds to their charm. Anyway, the humour is wry, dry and droll – and contemporary, I guess, though I avoid any direct references to the news; that would only instantly date them. With the book blurb declaring ‘As seen in the Winegum Telegram’, it felt only right to include a sample…

The transference of the images from sketch-pad to printed page ironically gives them the look of having being sourced from an old newspaper, an act of serendipity that adds to the homage, I guess. Anyway, the book’s available on Amazon for a piddling £2.99 ( and might provide you with a few minutes of entertainment when you need a break from your Smartphone screen. I make less than a quid from a purchase, by the way, so I shan’t be living it up like Northamptonshire County Council when they sank a fortune into a swanky new HQ before realising it left them with nothing to fund public services. No, Jack the English Cat is not about a fast buck; I just wanted to make people smile, and this is the best I can offer right now. Life is not good and I’m not expecting my creation to be my salvation, but every little helps, as Morrison’s used to say.

© The Editor


Unless you’re in the know, chances are the name Leo Baxendale means nothing to you. However, if you’re over at least 30, you’ll be more than familiar with the characters this unsung National Treasure gave us – The Bash Street Kids, Minnie the Minx, Little Plum, and Grimly Feendish, to name a few. It’s been announced that Baxendale has died at the age of 86 and – subsequent innovators such as Alan Moore and the ‘2000AD’ generation aside – it’s hard to think of anyone who revolutionised British comics more than this remarkably gifted draughtsman from Preston.

Beginning before the Second World War, both The Dandy and The Beano were firmly part of the British cultural furniture by the time Baxendale became a regular contributor to the latter in 1952. The introduction of Dennis the Menace the year before had given Britain’s schoolboys a new anti-hero that enabled them to live out their revenge fantasies on authority figures such as parents and teachers by proxy. Tapping into this new spirit of cartoon anarchy that served to inject some much-needed colour into monochrome Austerity Britain for anyone under the age of around 13, Baxendale added to the list of naughty schoolboys with an entire class of them, The Bash Street Kids.

With Desperate Dan the cowboy star of The Dandy, Baxendale decided to showcase the other side for The Beano by creating Red Indian character Little Plum as well as The Three Bears. Both strips ran for over thirty years, long after their creator had left the comic, whereas The Bash Street Kids continue to run riot in their preserved 50s playground to this very day, as does the other character whose creation he will forever be associated with, Minnie the Minx.

Clearly a female equivalent of Dennis the Menace, Baxendale’s tomboy (first appearing in 1953) even wore the same red-and-black hooped jersey Dennis had virtually trademarked. However, whilst her male counterpart can be placed in a long tradition of unruly little boys such as William Brown (AKA ‘Just William’), there were few precedents in either literature or comics for Minnie. Yes, there were the wild pupils of St Trinian’s, though they were posh girls at a boarding school; Minnie was a working-class heroine when the idea of a girl from ‘the lower orders’ being as mischievous and badly-behaved as a boy was very much frowned upon. She instantly provided female readers with their own role model that parents were destined to disapprove of; the fact she also happened to be ginger gave hope to redheads everywhere. Like Dennis, her wicked deeds may have ended with the obligatory slipper on the backside, but readers at the time were aware that’s how all wicked deeds concluded, so her ultimate failure didn’t matter; what mattered was that she had the guts to have a go.

Dundee-based DC Thomson, publishers of The Dandy and The Beano as well as a host of other popular titles, were notoriously reluctant to give credit to the artists illuminating the pages of their publications; the serf-like approach they had to the men whose creations and artwork sold millions of copies (in 1950, the weekly circulation of The Beano alone was estimated at 1,974,072) irked Baxendale and he left the company after a decade in 1962, moving to DC Thomson rivals Odhams Press. Whilst there, he helped create Wham!, a gloriously insane comic that allowed his vivid imagination to run riot and one that introduced one of his most memorable creations, Grimly Feendish.

If you’ve ever seen the animated movie ‘Despicable Me’, the influence of Feendish is unmistakable. A fat bald villain clad in black, Feendish’s army for achieving world domination included bats, spiders and various fictitious creatures that made him a cult horror figure so potent to 60s children that when some of them grew up and formed The Damned, they even wrote a hit single about him. Unfortunately, the high production cost of Wham! and its sister titles pushed Odhams into financial difficulties and the company was absorbed into IPC, whose titles showcased most of Baxendale’s new work in the 70s as well as introducing that decade’s comic readership (myself included) to the likes of Grimly Feendish.

Still smarting from his treatment by DC Thomson and the fact that the strips he created remained amongst the most popular in the company’s comic stable, Baxendale took the company to court in the 80s in order to gain the rights to his creations. This legal battle spanned seven years, eventually settled out of court with an arrangement that apparently suited both parties. The fact that Baxendale was prepared to take on the authority of Thomson seemed to echo the attitude of Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids towards their own authority figures, perhaps showing there was more than a touch of the creations in the creator.

Whereas the 1960s may have opened the door to irreverence that in turn heralded the death of deference, without the foundations laid in the previous decade we wouldn’t have had ‘Beyond the Fringe’ or John Lennon asking the people in the expensive seats at the Royal Variety Performance to rattle their jewellery. Whilst the likes of Spike Milligan and The Goons are rightly recognised as hugely significant pioneers in helping to manufacture this atmosphere, credit is also due to the men whose madcap characters enlivened the comics read by kids who went on to play their own part in the 60s cultural revolution.

Leo Baxendale stands at the head of these neglected innovators; that it’s still possible to follow the adventures of Minnie the Minx and The Bash Street Kids in the twenty-first century is testament to their enduring appeal and to the man who made them. RIP.

© The Editor


1966 was a landmark year in the history of the American comic book; it saw the introduction of the first regular black superhero to the roll-call of hip Pop Art icons. It’s worth bearing in mind that The Black Panther debuted in the pages of Marvel’s ‘The Fantastic Four’ several months before the formation of the actual Black Panther militant civil rights group, so there can be no accusations of cashing-in on the part of the character’s creators, legendary double act Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. Further additions to the ‘ethnic minority’ league of superheroes came in the early 1970s, with the likes of The Falcon and Luke Cage, Power Man; the latter was a blatant attempt to capitalise on Hollywood’s ‘Blaxploitation’ era, though as a 70s child randomly picking up imported US Marvel comics, the skin colour of said superheroes wasn’t an issue; all that mattered to me then was whether or not the stories and (especially) the artwork were worth shelling out 6p for.

A lot has changed in forty years. Ever since the Marvel Corporation was purchased by the Disney Corporation, Marvel is not so much seen by the general public as a comic book business than as the source material for an ongoing motion picture franchise. The need to appeal to the movie industry’s imposed diversity agenda has seen Marvel’s line-up undergo the kind of severe PC surgery in recent months that smacks of pure tokenism rather than a natural reflection of the changing American idea of what constitutes a ‘hero’.

Not so long ago, Spider-Man’s secret identity was redesigned as that of a mixed-race adolescent; Ms Marvel – one of Marvel’s second division characters – was remodelled as a Pakistani immigrant for no reason other than a presumed need to tick a few politically-correct boxes; Norse God Thor received a sex-change during the same period, as did Iron Man, when millionaire playboy-cum-scientist Tony Stark made way for (in the words of Bonnie Greer) an African-American woman. The comic branch of Marvel seems to have bowed to external pressures and thrust the ‘ethnic’ members of its universe into the limelight whilst its movies continue to boast a largely white cast appealing to a largely white audience. No wonder its sales have plummeted.

In 2014, 9 out of 10 of the best-selling comic book titles were produced by Marvel; last year, following the aforementioned revamps, it could only claim 3 out of 10. Between 2015 and the beginning of this year, Marvel launched a ridiculous 104 new titles, with a quarter of them being resounding flops. It would appear the department upon which the entire Marvel industry was built is currently being run by right-on headless chickens responding to a perceived need for a narrow definition of diversity, without any real clue as to what it is that makes the superhero genre work. Even a Senior Marvel Executive, David Gabriel, has admitted as much, though was predictably forced to retract his honest observation when it received the usual howling accusations of racism.

From its 1930s beginnings, the superhero as a character was a square-jawed strongman clad in the skin-tight costume then more commonly associated with circus entertainers. He was a one-dimensional figure without any trace of an internal life because he had one simple function that didn’t require much in the way of existential analysis – to fight crime. All the superheroes that sprang from what comic book historians refer to as ‘The Golden Age’ – Superman, Batman, Captain America, Captain Marvel et al – adhered to this successful formula. Wonder Woman was a novel deviation from the norm, but what essentially made her different was her sex; other than that, she was cut from the same cloth as her male counterparts.

It was only when Marvel rebranded itself as a major challenger to the dominance of DC via the launch of ‘The Fantastic Four’ in 1961 that the superhero acquired a level of realism he had never previously possessed. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby put together their crime-fighting team with unique human failings at a point when the superhero medium was emerging from a lull in which it had been superseded by romance, crime and horror genres. The latter had sparked a moral panic on both sides of the Atlantic akin to the ‘Video Nasty’ scare of the early 80s; the violence in comics was also linked to juvenile delinquency, leading to the introduction of the censorious Comics Code Authority. Superheroes suddenly seemed a safe option again.

Marvel’s revolutionary redrawing of the boundaries of the genre included giving the bespectacled target of high-school bullies the ability to climb walls and spin webs. Poor Peter Parker always lost the girls to the jocks – probably like the majority of the Marvel readers – and this relatable factor was crucial; who could relate to Bruce Wayne, after all? But Parker’s new identity as Spider-Man came at a price; initially a TV star showing off his superpowers, he declines to intervene in a robbery, only for the criminal in question to then kill his uncle. This twist, which saddles Parker with intense guilt, provokes him into fighting crime thereafter. There had never been that kind of mature storytelling in superhero comics before.

Marvel’s phenomenal success in the 60s – and its extensive college-age readership – gave DC a kick up the arse, leading them to exploit the latent dark side of Bat Man and making him a far more interesting character in the process. The introduction of The Black Panther was a natural progression; Marvel were already reflecting the culture of the times, so a black superhero was an inevitable development rather than the knee-jerk response to a demand for diversity. By comparison, the recent rush to cobble together a line-up of PC-friendly superheroes feels like the decision of a focus group, characters created by committee; and the readership know this, which is why they’ve rejected them. Once again, the few are dictating their agenda to the many, and the end result is a disaster.

© The Editor


2000ad40 years ago this week, any little boys whose sole highlight of being dragged to the shops by their mother was to scan the shelves in the newsagents and see which comic caught the eye were greeted by a new arrival. Although I enjoyed the ‘funnies’ produced by both DC Thompson and IPC, my preferred choice was usually the superhero weeklies that emanated from Marvel’s UK division – monochrome reprints of the company’s US classics, albeit with strikingly colourful cover illustrations accompanying a mouth-watering range of titles. No home-grown comic could compete with the Marvel Universe when it came to imaginary escapism – until February 1977, that is, when a new IPC publication created its own universe of spectacular heroes and villains, one set in a distant future that wouldn’t be the present for another 23 years.

There had never been a British comic quite like ‘2000AD’. The nearest to date had been ‘Action’, a title that had hit the headlines a year or so previously due to its excessive violence; in a pre-‘Video Nasty’ era, when children’s reading material was regularly held up as the inspiration for delinquency and vandalism, ‘Action’ was met with such widespread adult condemnation that IPC were forced to cancel the comic for several months until resurrecting it in a diluted fashion; it didn’t last long after that.

However, many of the artists and writers who had their fingers burned on ‘Action’ reunited at the beginning of 1977, having come up with the canny ruse of replicating the excitement of ‘Action’ in a futuristic context, figuring no grown-up would notice if the same rhetoric was cloaked in the unreality of a sci-fi landscape. Ironically, appearing on the newsstands just a couple of months after Bill Grundy’s summit meeting with The Sex Pistols, ‘2000AD’ may have been looking far ahead, but it was very much a product of its times.

The front cover of issue No.1 was partially obscured by the obligatory free gift (a futuristic Frisbee taped to it), but concessions to past, present and future were present: one was a new-look Dan Dare, the comic hero of my father’s childhood; another was M.A.C.H. 1, a bionic hero shamelessly ripping off ‘The Six Million Dollar Man’; and hidden behind the free gift was Tharg, the alien editor of the comic. I had no idea this intriguing newcomer was arriving; it seemed to drop from the stars out of nowhere. I managed to persuade my mum to part with the princely sum of 8p and I was transported to another planet.

Along with the two strips already mentioned, there was the gory ‘Flesh’, in which a future food shortage saw time-travel utilised to farm dinosaurs for human consumption; there was ‘Harlem Heroes’, following the fortunes of a team playing a violent sport clearly based on the movie, ‘Rollerball’; and there was also ‘Invasion’, set two years before the date of the comic’s title and dealing with a Soviet-style nation invading the UK; I remember one panel in particular showing an aged Prince Charles (complete with moustache) fleeing the country and addressed as Your Majesty. The writers obviously couldn’t envisage a Queen poised to celebrate her Silver Jubilee would still be on the throne at the end of the twentieth century, let alone into the twenty-first.

The character associated with ‘2000AD’ more than any other didn’t appear until the second issue, and this was when the comic really set itself apart from the competition. Judge Dredd may have taken his name from a comedy British reggae act (albeit spelt differently), but he was unlike any other UK comic hero there’d ever been. He was cop, judge, jury and executioner embodied in a sadistic hybrid of Dirty Harry and Charles Bronson’s character from ‘Death Wish’, fighting crime in the dystopian American metropolis of Mega City One.

With an unseen face permanently shielded by the distinctive helmet that was crucial to the uniform of this militaristic cop, Dredd was a classic anti-hero that was new to British readers. As with the other strips in the comic, the artwork was superb, the nearest Brits had come to the great Marvel artists, manufacturing a nightmarish vision of what was to come that nevertheless reflected contemporary concerns about the western world’s urban jungles.

‘2000AD’ appeared just a few months before ‘Star Wars’ hit UK cinema screens, but even though it capitalised on the sci-fi craze of the late 70s, the content of the comic owed more to the adult sci-fi movies of the early 70s in that it was less concerned with far-off worlds and more focused on the world we already knew, maximising present day fears and turning them up to eleven. By the beginning of the 80s, its influence stretched way beyond these shores, attracting attention across the pond. Marvel and DC, beginning to look a little jaded by comparison, started poaching the talented team of writers and artists working on ‘2000AD’ and hired them to revitalise their own universes.

The likes of Alan Moore and Neil Gaiman received early breaks on ‘2000AD’, but rather than simply succumbing to the easy dollar of the superhero comic, they served to transform the medium by helping create the graphic novel. This new grown-up incarnation of the comic book had its roots in the early pioneering days of ‘2000AD’; in fact, the sprawling 1978 Judge Dredd epic, ‘The Cursed Earth’ (originally spanning 25 issues), laid the foundations for the modern graphic novel in its ambitious narrative scale. British comics would never be the same again.

‘2000AD’ marked a turning point in this country, whereby comics ceased to be aimed solely at a prepubescent readership and began to be appreciated as an art-form appealing to all ages. However, one could argue a major casualty of this change has been the prepubescent readership itself; just compare the dazzling variety of graphic novels on sale in bookshops to the paucity of children’s comics available at your local newsagent. The graphic novel is where the money’s at for aspiring comic artists and writers; the rich British tradition of the essential, not to say affordable, weekly is essentially over. Perhaps ‘2000AD’ was its last hurrah, both rejuvenating and killing it. In some respects, the publication’s now rather anachronistic title seemed to predict an end rather than a beginning.

© The Editor