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Revolution Phase Three: Hulk, Night-Raven and the return of Captain Britain
The Hulk was a media sensation, it was one of the biggest TV hits of 1979. Ken Johnson had done such a terrific job on the TV pilot that we even forgave the awful Lou Ferrigno wig! And Bill Bixby’s “Don’t Get Me Angry, You Wouldn’t Like Me When I’m Angry” line fast became a newspaper cliche.
But all of this must have in some ways irked TV makers Universal Pictures because it wasn’t theirs! So when potential licensees approached them, they had to pass them on to Marvel. In the UK alone, we had over 180 Hulk licensed products, so it was a regular part of my job to look over new would-be Hulk items. My favourite had to be Wall’s Hulk lolly. Green on the outside, pink on the inside. Always thought they got that the wrong way around, but what do I know about ice cream making?
So with all this exposure, it was pretty obvious that Hulk should get his own weekly title. But quite sensibly the TV series deviated from the comic strip. It was a different medium and the backlash to the camp Batman TV series, with its assortment of super-villains had yet to abate. So a new Hulk comic would have to somehow tread the tightrope of reflecting the TV series (with its multi-million audience) without being too unrecognisable as the character on all this Marvel-licensed material.
The answer was obvious, and part of something I’d always wanted to head for… commission new material. So, as with just about every other title I’ve launched, it kicked off with Dave Gibbons artwork! But Dave, like any other artist, could obviously only draw a limited number of pages a week, so Hulk Comic became a traditional UK anthology title. No glossy cover, rough newsprint stock, black and white interiors. As with Marvel Comic, I was wanting an adventure anthology title more than a super-hero one. Super-heroes had never been big sellers in the UK, we had plenty of legends of the past to spin fantasies about. So I went that route, picking existing Marvel characters who weren’t really cut from the super-hero cloth. There was another reason, artists over here leaned more to drawing realistically, rather than the beefed-up dynamic US way!
Brian Bolland was establishing himself as a superb cover artist, so he was a natural for the first issue. But, with 300,000 copies depending on impulse purchase based purely on the cover (and the inevitable free gift) I felt it needed tweaking. It took Brian a while to get over what I did, but the end-product had a Sal Buscema face pasted over the one he’d drawn.
With my House of Hammer stalwarts Steve Moore and Steve Parkhouse sharing out the scripting duties between them, the first issue had a very strong art line-up. As well as Dave Gibbons on The Hulk, John Stokes – longtime Fishboy artist for IPC’s Buster – drew a redesigned and somewhat less super-hero looking Black Knight . I had always felt he would suit an Arthurian mystery story far better than a Manhattan skyline. Stopping a crook with a sword might not go down well with the authorities!
John Richardson had drawn many action strips for DC Thomson and IPC. For Hulk #1 (7/3/79), he took on Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD (our nod towards the 007 craze).
David Lloyd had only worked for me once before, but did a great job of depicting 1950s England in the House of Hammer adaptation of Quatermass II, and was more than pleased to lend his style to prohibition Chicago in Night-Raven.
But on one of his infrequent trips to our offices, Stan Lee said he wasn’t too crazy about the setting and time period for this one. Having grown up reading paperbacks of The Shadow and The Spider, I liked the idea of an enigmatic vigilante pulp-style hero, branding gangsters of the time, but to placate Stan, I said that we could easily whisk him into the present day if it didn’t score with readers (although I’d really no desire to do such a thing!).
As for Ant-Man, this was a reprint, but a somewhat obscure one by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. As well as doing a bit of budget-busting by including it, I’d always had a soft spot for this diminutive hero and had every intention of commissioning new material for him once the short supply of reprints was used up.
But for reasons lost in the mists of time it was running frighteningly late. Our first stab at an originated Marvel weekly had had its share of problems and the Irish printers were beginning to panic (as was I). When you book press time for over a quarter of a million print run, a title that TV ads have said will be on sale a certain date, you need to deliver as promised or you’ve just squandered your ad budget and missed your print date.
Printers obviously schedule jobs in, always aiming at keeping their presses rolling. A silent press isn’t paying its way. So they clear a gap in their schedules and expect jobs, especially big jobs, to arrive on time or there’ll be a domino knock-on effect on all other other work if they have to reschedule.
So when it was completed I decided drastic action was needed. Paste-up boards and original art tucked under my arm, with American Express card in hand, I shot off to Heathrow and took the first plane out to Dublin, having told the printers I was on my way. My destination being abroad I did of course pass through HM Customs & Excise duty free shops, so I picked up a carton of cigarettes en route.
An hour later I was met at Dublin airport (nice that there are a few left that don’t have daft unmemorable names like Schiphol or LAX) by two chaps from Leinster Web Offset and whisked off to lunch at the local rugby club. Then it’s a a plane back to London some three hours later. But upon my return, passing through the “Nothing to Declare” section, I was stopped by a customs official asking how many cigarettes I was carrying. “No idea. However many are in a carton, except for a few I’ve smoked,” was my frank reply.
I was duly informed that I had nearly 300 cigarettes left and, while that was the quantity allowed on outward journeys, only 200 could be brought into Britain. Protesting that I’d only been abroad for three hours and even at my chugging rate I couldn’t smoke 100 that quickly, I still had to hand five packs over as illegal imports. That was a toughie to claim on company expenses!
SuperStan swoops in!
Getting monthly financial reports from our longest-lasting bullpener, accountant Gautum Basu, New York-based Stan Lee was so pleased by the turnaround in Marvel UK’s fortunes that, coupled with him being a self-confessed Anglophile, he hopped on a plane and came over to London to add his support to the launch of the company’s very first homegrown weekly.
Naturally this helped tremendously, getting us stacks of TV and print coverage for the launch of Hulk Comic. But it helped on another level too…
From a plush Mayfair hotel suite, Stan was holding newspaper and magazine interviews with each journalist sent in one at a time, to add a personal touch. But 57-year old Stan also insisted that he was using this platform to introduce 26-year old upstart me to the media, so I’d be able to fly solo on further launch extravaganzas.
That was so cool. Having Stan introduce me to the press, being actively encouraged to share answers to their questions with him, and most importantly him telling me after each one which bits I got right and which bits he felt I didn’t.
An amazing and unique learning curve.
You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry… The Hulk!
Looking back, it seems I went through my entire address book of artists on Hulk. Above are just a few of them who drew the normally self-contained three page weekly adventures, all written by Steve Parkhouse. Because of the demands of a weekly strip, most were guest artists. We finally settled on in-house artist Paul Neary handling pencil layouts, inked for a few months by a stalwart of British comics, John Richardson, until David Lloyd moved over from his Night-Raven assignment (more on that further below) to become the regular Hulk inker.
Above is the Hulk three-page story from issue 2. Possibly the closest we ever got to the incredibly popular TV series (TV’s No. 1 hero as our covers usually announced). But what made it remarkable was that it was the first published work of a 17 year old, Steve Dillon. By amazingly good fortune, both for Steve and Marvel UK, he had submitted a single A4 sample sheet to a fanzine only a few weeks earlier.
The sheet, with three pencil figure drawings had been sent to Comic Media News, edited by Richard Burton, one of my new editorial recruits. Rich showed me the drawings and I instantly contacted Steve. Some people believe that samples should be reams of finely detailed comic strips. Not so. Any editor or art editor worth their salt should be able to spot talent from a simple page of sketches. I thought I just had and immediately invited Steve up from Luton for a chat.
While I was pleased to instantly take Steve on as a freelance artist, his parents knew nothing of the freelance world and sensibly wanted him to go to college. So, to reassure them, I instantly gave Steve a contract guaranteeing him work for the next 12 months. And work he certainly did!
In addition to the Hulk three-pager, he also took on another three pager – the regular weekly assignment of drawing Nick Fury Agent of SHIELD from John Richardson, who moved over to inking Paul Neary’s dynamic pencils on the lead Hulk strip. So in all Steve (now best known as artist and co-creator of Vertigo’s Preacher title) produced no less than six pages in Hulk Comic #2. And despite his tender years, his page rate from day one was the same as veteran artists working for the title. As I told him at the time, “You’re earning a terrific amount of money, pity you’ll have no free time to spend it!”
When he joined me at Studio System a couple of years later, upon discovering I’d been right, he’d had no free time whatsoever and by working for me had missed out on the social side of college, I immediately introduced him to the bright lights of London’s pubs, pool tables, pints and people (and a temporary home, sleeping on my living room couch).
Where Brooding Darkness Spreads Its Evil Wings… Night-Raven!
Despite Stan’s reservations, Night-Raven was quite an in-house favourite – it was so different to the usual Marvel super-hero fare. And, despite still being set in America, I felt it would resonate better with the regular UK comics-buying audience.
As already mentioned, it had come about because of my love of pulp paperback heroes. Nobody seemed to be doing them any more, despite the rich background of prohibition Chicago.
The idea had come long before the name (always a problem coming up with anything original!). I knew I wanted him to be enigmatic, a change from the standard superheroes-with-secret-identities of the States. Faceless and mysterious, his real name and actual powers were never stated, I didn’t even intend his “secret origin” to be revealed for quite a while.
It was really all about the period, and about a masked avenger in trenchcoat and wide-brimmed fedora who caught crooks and branded them! American artist Joe (E-Man) Staton couldn’t believe it when he heard. “You guys have heroes who actually brand the crooks?” he said in total disbelief.
Yeah, real Old Testament stuff.
I also knew I wanted “Night” in his name. So Rich Burton and I waded through a dictionary and a thesaurus to find a cool sounding “Night” name. And what a gem we hit upon! Milton’s L’Allegro had a great rhyming couplet amidst references to Cerberus and Cimmeria: Where brooding Darkness spreads his jealous wings, and the night-raven sings. Wow! Not only a great name but, with a bit of tweaking, a fantastic oath to go with it! (I’d always been a sucker for such. Who could forget Green Lantern’s brilliant oath “In brightest day, in darkest night…” etc.)
So I commissioned Steve Parkhouse to script the three page weekly stories and David Lloyd to draw them up. Steve rounded off the first episode with the caption “Night in the city”. Ah, another catch phrase in the making. Tweaking this too, to Night-time in the City, I asked Steve to run it as a dramatic intro and/or outro line each issue.
A funny thing happened with only the second appearance of the character. David did such a bang-up job of telling the story in pictures that I didn’t think it needed lettering! As well as a compliment to their skills, so I didn’t think they’d mind too much, it was also another cute bit of budget-busting. Here’s how it looked…
Obviously it wasn’t only in-house that it was a favourite, because that three page silent strip won the 1979 Eagle Award as best UK comics story of the year. Amazing. And mentioning the Eagles, about 20 years later at the Bristol Comic Expo, the Eagle Awards were being revived and we shelled out for actor Simon Pegg to be the guest presenter. His agent said he was a comics fan and would be happy to do it.
Being the cynic that I am ad at that stage not aware of Simon’s Spaced TV series, I wasn’t sure I believed the agent. So over the awards dinner, before the results were announced, I’d arranged for one of my team to quiz Simon as we sat on either side of him, scoffing away. “So do you remember the first comic you read, Simon?” the seemingly innocuous question was asked.
“Certainly do,” Simon replied, “Hulk Comic, with that Night-Raven guy who went around branding people.”
Still cynical, I came in then with “Ah, come on, Simon. You’re just saying that ‘cos it was one of mine!”. His turn to be cynical. He didn’t believe me.
When he was convinced and took to the stage, he announced as I went up to collect an award that I was his “spiritual godfather”. Nice.
In fact Simon was such a comics fan that over drinkies after the awards he admitted that he’d always wanted to meet Dave Gibbons. As the Watchmen co-creator was there, I took him over and introduced Dave to a surprisingly timid looking Simon Pegg!
Ah, but I had such plans for Night-Raven though. I had an origin worked out, rooted in World War One, prefaced by the most irreversible death scene imaginable. This was an episode end which would have had readers baffled about how the hero was going to make a comeback… the sort of thing usually reserved for Looney Tunes characters, sliced diced and shredded.
In fact I mentioned it to Dan Abnett (who by then had written Nocturne, a 1994 Night-Raven mini-series for Marvel US) and he thought it was pretty amazing too. Never got to use it though… yet.
But everything was interrupted only a few months in when our beloved leader visited and, not liking David Lloyd’s “blocky” style, asked if I could find an artist with a smoother look. Knowing it would be foolhardy to ignore a direct request, despite my own reservations yet again and much to my ever-lasting regret, I agreed and switched David over to drawing The Hulk (hey, these guys are freelancers – you don’t just drop them!) and brought in John Bolton. John wanted a higher page rate, so to stay within budget but give him what he wanted, I simply chopped the page count by a half page to two and a half a week – which must have made it a nightmare for whoever edited the collection with all those odd half pages!
Ironic aside: Only a few months before he was replaced by John Bolton, David Lloyd had this to say “Bolton is the epitomy of everything a British artist in strips should be. His work has style, grace and shows no sign of American influences. The man’s a one-off and should be encouraged every step of the way.” (Graphic Sense #5, August 1979)
After I left Marvel UK for other challenges a variety of people took over working on the character, including Alan McKenzie (as Maxwell Stockbridge), Alan Moore, Alan Davis and Jamie Delano, as Night-Raven cropped up in various titles as a cheaper text filler, using only spot illustrations until ultimately reduced to the cheapest filler of all… reprints. A sad finale for a character with such potential.
But I’m pleased to say that David Lloyd did get another innings, in the 1991 original graphic novel, Night Raven: House of Cards (albeit suddenly without the hyphen in Night-Raven. Sloppy, sloppy, sloppy!).
There’s a nice little on-line video starring David Lloyd about how V for Vendetta was inspired by Night-Raven here.
Apparently, current Marvel UK licensee Panini has held off on further editions of Night-Raven because there’s concern over who owns the intellectual property. Hopefully they’ll discover this site and send me an email!
Don’t Yield – Back Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.
Not only were super spies all the rage at the time, both in films and on TV, but Marvel’s very own top secret agent had a terrific US pedigree with the likes of artists Jack Kirby and Jim Steranko (above) laying the groundwork. And even better, he wasn’t a bloody super-hero, so I thought he’d be a perfect character for our new anthology weekly.
Steve Moore took on the scripting duties and John Richardson the art for our first issue. But I found John’s work [detail left] looked more Frank Springer than Jim Steranko (sorry, John).
So with the second issue young Steve Dillon became the regular weekly S.H.I.E.L.D. artist [detail above right]. Here’s Steve’s first complete strip [below]. If it still stands up OK today that may be because he’d had a birthday and reached the ripe old age of 17 by this stage!
But as great as the SHIELD strip was, running in the first 19 issues of the weekly, with Steve Dillon’s art evolving at a rapid pace under the tutelage of Paul Neary, there was one serial which outlasted all the other strips, beginning in the first issue and not ending until Hulk Comic’s final issue, May 15 1980’s #63…
The Quest for King Arthur… and Captain Britain!
Another Marvel character I’d always had a soft spot for was The Black Knight. He’d first appeared in a strangely Merlin-absent Arthurian five issue series by Stan Lee and the great Joe Maneely in the 1950s (five issues meaning it didn’t sell so as soon as #1 final sales figures came in from the distributor, it was promptly cancelled!).
Never one to discard previous ideas, Stan brought back the name in 1964, but this time as a contemporary villain for Giant Man and Iron Man [above, left].
But it was Roy Thomas who realised his potential as a hero figure and, with artist Howard Purcell, gave him a new identity in Marvel Super-Heroes #17 (1968, above middle). It took a while, but obviously Roy liked him too because from there he eventually became a regular guest star and finally an Avenger.
But with a winged horse and a mystic blade he sat uncomfortably in such company and New York somehow didn’t provide a suitable backdrop for his exploits. At least, that’s what I thought when I chose to revamp and revive him for Hulk Comic. His roots were in Celtic mythology and that’s where I thought he should return.
I knew Steve Parkhouse was a keen fan of everything Arthurian, so I gave him the brief of writing the strip as such. But I have to admit I never expected his end product to be such an amazingly epic storyline, or to have such a wonderful cast of characters – both the heroes and the villains.
As a reader, I’d always loved a tease. And this strip featured Hulk Comic’s biggest tease imaginable…
I had realised that the Black Knight wasn’t the only previously-established Marvel character with origins tied to Arthurian legend, there was another who had been equally under-exploited, one who had failed to catch on a few years earlier.
So I thought this would be a great opportunity to bring back a high-profile hero I felt had been sadly mishandled in his brief run.
With clues in the first few issues, it wasn’t until issue four that this seemingly super-strong character known only as The Stranger, constantly searching the caves for something unknown, was revealed as Captain Britain.
Come to think of it, we did a similar “who could this be?” tease on the cover and first installment when reviving Marvelman a few years later. Hey, to emulate Stan… if it works once, it’ll work twice!
Here’s the Marvel Milestone, as they say: the 3-page episode from Hulk Comic #4 which told the readers we were bringing back Captain Britain…
…We used to get through a sheet of Letraset a week, rubbing down those toplines and taglines!
I’d always admired John Stokes’ linework on Buster, drawing Fishboy, Marney the Fox and a selection of other adventure strips, so I dragged him out of theatre backdrop design in Norwich and back into drawing comics with this strip. But as wonderful as John’s finished images were, I felt they would be enhanced with more dynamic layouts, so from issue six Paul Neary was added to the mix as layout penciller. Above right are samples of them working on the character separately, in early character sketches. But below are a few examples of the stunning end product of them working together. The best of both, I’d say! Epic stuff! This was the true centrepiece of Hulk Comic, a saga in the classic sense of the word, as Merlyn dispatched his champions in search of the tomb of King Arthur. I was so impressed with Steve Parkhouse, who really went to town on this serial, weaving legends and even folk songs into the telling.
As well as the Black Knight, Captain Britain, Merlyn and elfin warriors, Steve borrowed from the much-discussed Green Grow the Rushes, O lyrics the idea of the Twelve Walkers (but without any of the Christian version).
He told of the Six Proud Walkers who walked the Old Paths, which followed lines of power, of great Earthmagic where mighty dragons had once roamed, ley lines. They established land-marks and guide-lines, passing their knowledge to those wise enough to understand, who would come to be called druids.
But six of the Twelve were corrupted by the forces of darkness and created false paths to lead mankind astray, principally the left-hand path of black magic. Because of them, people became mistrustful of the old ways. Witches were burned and creatures from Otherworld like faeries, elves, trolls and dragons were shunned and scorned and the old paths discarded until a rift appeared between the two worlds. The Walkers withdrew from the world and into legend.
But above all stood a being whose knowledge and powers were far greater than all twelve Walkers, Merlyn, the pentagram-wearing One (“…is one and all alone, and ever more shall be so”). This, in part, was the backdrop for the Black Knight serial. Not your standard children’s comics fare!
Heroes rose… heroes fell… heroes rose again as the quest led the champions of Merlyn to Otherworld, and Avalon. Writer Steve Parkhouse produced the visual below, to show the artists how he envisaged Camelot as a castle in Otherworld, on the edge of oblivion and under siege.
“You can’t trust a man who hangs out with insects!”
Maybe it’s only me, but reading Tales to Astonish as a kid, I never thought of Ant-Man as a super-hero. The guy’s only a couple of inches tall and uses flying insects as transport. Unusual, but hardly super-heroic! Hey, he doesn’t even have a cape! In those early Marvel super-hero rebirth days of 1962-1964 they were coming out of their monster period, so characters like The Hulk, The Thing and Ant-Man (even Spider-Man, in name) were an interesting bridge between the two. But on looking back, that header we created (above) is frighteningly similar to the later Marvelman insignia what with all its stripes and spikes and a giant M in the middle. Maybe that’s why it didn’t last very long!
Having run the character’s origin and early adventures, picked up from Marvel US, I commissioned the ever-reliable Steve Moore to write up a script and Steve Dillon to apply his teenage magic to drawing Ant-Man (with a slightly revised costume) but set in his pre-Wasp or Giant-Man days when things were pure and simple (character sketch right). With Steve Moore’s inspired bad guy line of “You can’t trust a man who hangs out with insects!”, here’s the first three-page episode from Hulk Comic #48 (6/2/80) with slightly dodgy lettering but as much plot as an entire comicbook these days…
Editorially, Hulk Comic ran pretty smoothly. After the first few issues, it had a settled creative team who either already were or fast became familiar with the discipline of weekly deadlines. I tried to sweeten the pill somewhat by instigating a couple of at-the-time unheard of policies, which must have helped. In addition to creator credits appearing on the page (albeit inoffensively small and tucked between frames), everybody got their original artwork back as soon as we’d had films made but most importantly I offered seven day payment terms.
Knowing how hungry freelancers are, artists would bring in their completed week’s three pagers and be paid on the spot for the previous week’s work. As soon as they arrived, if I didn’t already have it in my drawer, I’d walk into the accountant’s office next door and get Gautum Basu to write out their cheque. None of this 30 days from end of month by post malarky for us!
But, while the content ran smoothly, we caught a serious cold over daring to deal with Disney in issue 7. Because Hulk was the big noise on TV at the time, Disney was only too happy to participate in a competition, with the winners going to Disney World, Florida (this was about 14 years before the nearer to hand Euro Disney opened in the Paris suburbs).
As a courtesy, we sent their London office a cover proof and got a surprising response. They didn’t want Mickey Mouse to appear alongside the Hulk. No problem with us promoting Disney World, but we couldn’t use Mickey Mouse… in words or pictures! So, with no time for new art, we had to knock out the offending image and text and throw in a few more stars – leaving us with possibly one of the emptiest covers ever to appear on a comic…
As a timely aside, I’d been cutting and slashing my way through British Marvel for about six months when I became the subject of an interview in BEM, one of the leading UK comics fanzines of the time.
The interview was conducted by a very young and visibly nervous Adam Pirani, who went on to write the 1989 Titan book The Complete Gerry Anderson Episode Guide while 18-year old Kev F. Sutherland – who went on to draw comics ranging from Doctor Strange to The Beano – provided acerbic spot cartoons and an introductory comic strip.
With my somewhat savage reformatting of US pages alienating a number of diehard fans who had preferred the by then failing traditional page-for-page approach (of which there were certainly not enough for me to oblige by leaving things alone) Kev and BEM editor/publisher Martin Lock had originally wanted to call the strip Dez the Ripper – a play on the then-current Yorkshire Ripper murderer as I came from said county.
But I felt that was a joke way too far, so we agreed on Dez the Knife.
Merely to promote the newly invigorated Marvel UK, and in no way showing off that I had access to the madly-expensive official Captain America garb of course, I turned up at the 1979 comics convention with a costume to die for.
Then there was The Marvel Revolution Phase Four (not to be confused with the wonderful but underrated Saul Bass film, Phase IV, of course)…
Next section: Marvel UK page four: Specials, Pocket Books and more more more!
Page modified by Dez Skinn on January 2, 2017