The phrase “British comics” has, over recent decades, seen a quite drastic shift in meaning. For a long time, British comics were affordable entertainment that youngsters picked up at the newsagent with their pocket money, and which covered a variety of genres from knockabout comedy to swooning romance, sporting exploits to high-flying sci-fi. Today, however, British comics are more prominently represented by respectable Guardian-reviewed graphic novels, online gag comics, and perhaps the occasional strip making its way into an otherwise comic-free kids’ TV tie-in magazine.
Times change, of course, but looking back at Britain’s comic heritage it is hard to escape the feeling that a lot has been lost.
The UK never had a true equivalent to Marvel or DC that was able to keep a universe of franchise characters alive decade after decade, let alone something comparable to Japan’s Shonen Jump or CoroCoro Comic. When it comes to twentieth-century British comics, a grand total of five have survived into the present day – five titles that now feel like a close-knit family. The Beano and Viz are the eternal schoolboys, one a prank-loving preadolescent and the other a sniggering teenager, each with a brand of humour that is in its own way timeless. Commando is the venerable old uncle, always ready to share a tale of wartime derring-do. Then we have the two ageing generation Xers, 2000 AD and Judge Dredd Megazine, whose idea of “cool” is manifestly the product of a bygone era in pop culture and yet still remains, well, cool.
But that family has the potential to get larger. We see evidence of this in The Phoenix, launched in 2012 and still running, which successfully revived the classic British kids’ anthology format for a generation weaned on Pixar and Pokémon. The existence of the colourful, fun and innocent Phoenix is heartening, yet it still leaves the question of whether the more out-there strands of British comic history could be revived. Will we ever again see something as punkish, confrontational and countercultural as the original 2000 AD, which debuted in 1977?
Well, the UK’s independent comics community would answer that question with a hearty “yes.” As proof, we have no fewer than three titles launched in 2020 each trying to fit the gap in the market: Spacewarp, Shift and The 77.
Of the three, Spacewarp must be the most poignant as it was conceived by writer-editor Pat Mills – the man who devised 2000 AD, amongst other trailblazing titles. Mills is Spacewarp’s sole writer, although he worked with a range of illustrators to create the anthology.
The comic’s framing story is the four-page “Sfeer & Loathing”, in which artist Gareth Sleightholme takes us to a planet populated by Giger-esque aliens. A villainous ruler activates a space warp that creates innumerable alternate universes: “Thanks to our warp, there is a Planet B after all. And a Planet C…! D…! E…! F…! Excellent new opportunities for humans!” In the process, he sets the stage for various stories occurring in their own worlds, with varying amounts of overlap between them and the wider narrative.
“Xecutioners”, also drawn by Gareth Sleightholme, follows a band of rebels who expose aliens masquerading as gods. “SF1”, drawn by Ade Hughes, has futuristic soldiers defending Earth from aliens, only to learn that the planet’s dominant indigenous species is not humanity but bacteria. The James Newell-drawn “Slayer” depicts an oppressive intergalactic church massacring peaceful aliens for worshipping a cow goddess (“Their primitive beliefs are the kind of religion to which I cannot subscribe and must be suppressed with all the force we can muster!”) The protagonist, one of the Giger-like beings introduced in the framing story, fights against the church militants by detaching his horned head and throwing it like a deadly boomerang.
As the hostility to organised religion in “Slayer” would indicate, Spacewarp is resolutely anti-authoritarian. “Hellbreaker”, drawn by Ian Ashcroft, is about a supernatural vigilante returning from the dead to punish wrongdoers; this is not itself a particularly original concept, but Mills makes a point out of having his protagonist forego street-level criminals in favour of bigger game, even killing a warmongering prime minister in his first adventure. “He’s pure evil… and an Instagram star” complain the two antagonists, one of whom happens to be a severed-and-reanimated head. “Rappers are name-checking him.” Hellbreaker is a man of the people, then, despite his Byronic, upper-crust appearance.
This contempt for the establishment can be found in even the most outwardly simplistic strips. The Bruno Stahl-drawn “Jurassic Punx”, set in an alternate 1979, has a grizzled paleontologist and a time-travelling girl from the twenty-first century teaming up to fight rampaging dinosaurs. The paleontologist predicted the return of these prehistoric beasts, but was ignored: “It was Professor Carney who warned the big publishes not to publish my books. And told the media not to review them. That’s how it’s done. That’s how academics suppress the truth.”
To many readers this will be a throwaway detail, an excuse for the hero to give a tyrannosaurus-like dinosaur the catchy nickname of “Carney”. But when we consider Mills’ condemnation of the media establishment over World War I and Catholic child-abuse, two topics that he has researched himself, the dialogue takes on a more personal dimension.
These satirical aspects never take precedence over the comic’s main aim of engaging the readership with science fiction and fantasy stories that are bursting with ideas. Although the stories are brief, averaging eight pages apiece, Mills has made sure that each tale has at least one (and preferably more than one) high concept to stick in the reader’s memory.
“FU-tant”, illustrated by Mike Donaldson, has the vaguely X-Men-esque setting of a university for youngsters with superpowers. It uses this premise to satirise class-ridden British boarding schools: a bullying “Alpha”, who has the gift of super-intelligence, derides a psychic schoolmate as a pathetic “Gamma girl who dumps her feelings on others.” This idea would have been enough as the basis for a high-concept comic in itself, yet it is confined almost entirely to a single page, the story moving on as its protagonist graduates to fight shapeshifting mantis-like creatures before stumbling onto the existence of a multiverse.
Spacewarp may be based on the model of late-’70s 2000 AD, but it is not designed solely – or even primarily – for nostalgic adults. Rather, Mills is adamant in pitching the comic at readers too young to remember the heyday of British comics.
“As I’ve said before, we’ve paid a truly terrible commercial price for comics ‘growing up’ and for deserting our original young readers”, explains Mills. “They didn’t walk away from us, we walked away from them and that was a huge mistake. I believe that, like James Bond or Doctor Who, popular culture comics like 2000 AD should appeal to young and old. So, Spacewarp is an attempt to reverse some of the damage and show that it is still possible to reach a wide rather than supposedly ‘elite’ audience. It aims to avoid either being too sophisticated or too young. Spacewarp is about putting the readers first.”
While backward-looking in some respects, Spacewarp is decidedly forward-looking in others, and acknowledges the diversity of contemporary Britain: “we want characters our readers can identify with”, says Mills. “Not traditional white middle class heroes.” At the same time, however, he stresses his desire “to stay away from cultural posturing and feature characters who are genuine, not comic fakes.”
“This is important because a potential reader in his 20s brought this up with me. He was relieved by my responses. He was a young taxi driver and those are the kinds of readers I want – I’ll leave The Guardian luvvies to others.
The words quoted above come from an interview with Pat Mills printed in the debut issue of Shift, another independent British comic anthology. While Spacewarp feels as though it arrived from a parallel timeline where the British comics landscape has remained unchanged since 1977, the thoroughly contemporary Shift – edited by Adrian Clarke – is a different beast altogether. If it has ancestors in the UK anthology scene, they would be hip-and-happening nineties magazines like Deadline and Revolver that rode current trends and explored new territory.
The first issue of Shift opens with Simon Furman and Geoff Senior’s “To the Death”. This is a story of space battles against a backdrop of corporate politics, told via the widescreen panels, decompressed storytelling and digital colouring common in modern US comics. The subject matter is similar to much of Spacewarp, but the execution is wildly different.
A little later we find Chris Geary’s “Kora”, about a futuristic castaway in a strange, possibly alien jungle. This story has a distinctly continental European, Metal Hurlant aesthetic, with clear-line artwork, no dialogue and a setting that is simultaneously quirky, cute, and brutally violent. One of the heroine’s first acts is to gun down a hunting party of cavemen, thereby saving a baby elephant from their spears; she then kills and eats the unfortunate animal herself.
These strips are relatively straightforward; more experimental is Scott Morse’s “Soulwind”. This starts out as a fable about Buddhist monks told using narrative captions and free-floating chiaroscuro illustrations, but by the end of its first instalment has become a conventionally-formatted panels-and-balloons strip starring a talking monkey and a grey alien. Martin Stiff’s “Tiny Acts of Violence” has a similar trajectory, opening as an illustrated prose story about childhood imagination before becoming a thriller set in Cold War Germany.
It should be noted that the bulk of Shift’s stories are serialisations of already-published comics, and so have a very different attitude towards pacing than Spacewarp. Pat Mills’ stories are designed to grab the reader as quickly as possible, while Shift’s contents tend to be more leisurely. “Shifter”, the work of a seven-person team led by Skip Brittenham and Brian Haberin, is so sedate in structure that, even after the first two instalments, it is unclear as to exactly what the plot is. The strip’s selling points are its sumptuous painted artwork that can be enhanced with a downloadable app.
As well as the above serials, plus teaser material for Jim Krueger and Steve Yeowell’s Image series Foot Soldiers, Shift contains stand-alone short stories that cover a fairly broad range of styles. Warwick Fraser-Coombe’s “Hungerville” in issue 1 is a very 2000 AD-esque satire about a killer robot taxman (“Yeah. About that cancer John. I paid for that too. I had someone sabotage your lungs when you missed a repayment”). Meanwhile, issue 2’s “Invincible” – a one-page superhero spoof by the French cartoonist Pascal Jousselin – comes from a rather different tradition. Rounding off the anthology are interviews with various comics creators, making Shift a “comic magazine” in more than one sense.
Moving on from the glossy Shift we find The 77, a rougher-edged title which, like Spacewarp, is trying to recapture the punkish spirit of bygone British comics. Marketed as “a new retro anthology” The 77 is an unabashed homage to early 2000 AD, with a title referring to the year in which that anthology was launched, and a logo is modelled directly on the original 2000 AD masthead.
Once the comic has been opened, however, it turns out to be rather more than a straightforward imitation. Edited by Ben Cullis and featuring contributions from a raft of writers and artists, The 77 is best summed up as the result of classic 2000 AD colliding with Deadline and several modern webcomics to create an anthology with its own distinct flavour.
Some of the serials feel straight out of 2000 AD: the futuristic gladiatorial combat of “V” (Steve Bull, Ade Hughes); the down-and-dirty space opera of “Gut Crawlers” (Dan Whitehead, Paul Williams, Filippo); and the high-concept “Division 77” (Dave Heeley, Sinclair Elliott) in which aliens help humanity to survive a pandemic by transferring people’s minds into robot soldiers. “The Screaming Hand” (Kek-W, Conor Boyle), about a man searching for his missing wife while helped and hindered by a ghostly limb, would not have been too out of place in 2000 AD’s short-lived sister title Scream.
Alongside these we find work that is a little more oddball and experimental, showing some very different visual styles. The artwork on offer in The 77 ranges from the cyberpunk imagery of “The Cell” (Bambos Georgiou, Andrew Sawyers) where bold panel layouts and brash use of colour make up for loosely-drawn figures, through to the cute and round-edged illustrations of “Penny Pentagram: Occult Detective” (David Thomas, Jon Roydon), which resembles a Cartoon Network reimagining of Buffy.
The comic’s short-form humour strips are similarly varied. “Sgt. Shouty of the Moon Force” is drawn by veteran cartoonist Lew Stringer in the classic Beano tradition, while the manic marker-pen scribbles of ”Skate Worm” (Smith & Conan, Morgan Gleave) are more in the school toilet-wall tradition – and proudly so, no doubt.
In addition to its serials The 77 has various done-in-one stories, which likewise represent a variety of themes and techniques. The first issue has a Brexit satire called “The Last Man” (Michael Powell, Phil Elliott), about humanity leaving Earth to escape a race of purely benevolent alien visitors; the clear, cheerful artwork masks some very bitter commentary. In issue 3, writer Mike Powell harks back to the spirit of vintage British girls’ comics like Tammy and Jinty with “Matilda Atkins and the Amulet of Destiny!” – drawn by Sarah Millman, who has in fact worked on Rebellion’s Tammy & Jinty revival. Most eye-catching of all are the short stories illustrated by Neil Sims, whose mixture of gorgeously-rendered caricatures and gleeful gross-out imagery are a highlight of the series.
The editorial introduction to The 77’s second issue bills it as featuring “stories from today’s hottest talent, tomorrow’s stars and the coolest creators from your childhood.” Even a quick flip through an issue will confront you with a mixture of the polished and the rough, the straightforward and the bizarre, the traditional and the experimental. The lack of any overall identity or ethos becomes part of the charm.
2021 and Beyond
Spacewarp, Shift and The 77 are three prominent titles in the UK anthology comic revival, but they are not the only ones. Time Bomb Comics’ Brawler, which had its first issue in 2019 and its second in February, is modelled on Warrior – the classic eighties anthology best remembered for being the original home of V for Vendetta. Meanwhile, early 2020 saw the launch of Sentinel, a sci-fi/horror-fantasy comic with a self-contained story in each 64-page issue; this was once a common format for comics in the UK, and is still used by the long-running military comic Commando. Also notable is last year’s ComicScene Annual, reviving the grand old tradition of the hardback comic annual.
Launching a new comic is a tough enough challenge in itself. Ensuring that the comic continues – particularly in today’s pandemic-ridden world – is still another task. The first issue of Spacewarp was released in July 2020, and details of the second instalment have yet to be finalised. The 77 launched in May 2020 and, aiming to move from quarterly to bi-monthly publication, saw its fourth issue in January 2021. Shift, the most punctual of the three, has stayed bi-monthly since its launch in October 2020, with its third issue having been published in February 2021.
Only time will tell how long each series will last. Other twenty-first century comics tried to revive the British anthology tradition, only to fade away: CLiNT, Strip Magazine, Bulletproof, Wasted. On the other hand, The Phoenix shows that a new British comic still has the potential to stick around.
But whether they are moving in to stay or just popping by for a visit, the UK comics family has some new arrivals. Time to clear out the spare room.