The Ones That Got Away: From Captain Britain to Danger Man
From Cents to Pence reveals the true story behind the creation of Marvel’s own line of British comics, from the trials and tribulations of their early years to how the ‘Marvel Revolution’ and a comic based on a film saved them from closure before their first decade was out. With the ‘Revolution’ came a switch to full production under the aegis of Dez Skinn, who set up a legacy that allowed a succession of British editors to give many up-and-coming future talents their first chance to shine and ensured the longevity of Marvel’s activities in the UK.
A staggering twenty years in development, From Cents to Pence contains a guide to not only every post-juvenile comic published by Marvel in Britain since 1972, but also contains extraordinarily detailed indices to every story published, with additional guides to the precise titles, content and formats of every comic, Special and Annual, and even the free gifts they contained! As an added bonus, From Cents to Pence is rounded out by a mammoth Printography detailing the work of every creator who produced work exclusively for the UK editions.
Copiously illustrated with a cornucopia of covers (most of which have never been seen in their original black and white state), posters, previously unseen artwork and development sketches, as well as a plethora of photos from all eras of the company’s existence, the book is prefaced – if that’s the right word for a history section that occupies over 200 pages alone – by a lovingly researched look at Marvel’s long involvement in the world of British comics.
Starting in 1951, when the first UK reprints from Len Miller and Alan Class featuring Marvel strips appeared, once sea-freighted imports of the American editions resumed after rationing and import restrictions were relaxed, the next major milestone in the story of Marvel in Britain saw their reprints shaping the look of Odham’s fondly remembered Power Comics line.
Heralded by the arrival of The Mighty World of Marvel at the end of September 1972, it was the creation of Marvel’s own line of UK comics that occupies the bulk of our story, as a succession of distinctive weekly, and later monthly, comics followed right through to today’s series of four-weekly Collector’s Editions, now published by Panini.
Accompanied by further examples of covers, posters, adverts and other memorabilia, the history section also examines every comic as the story unfolds, and features a titanic amount of new interview material, with contributions from such luminaries as Larry Lieber, Simon Furman, David Lloyd, Alan McKenzie, Richard Burton, Jenny O’Connor, Chuck Rozanski, David Anthony Kraft and many, many more… oh, and also from a certain former editor of Comics International too!
With production on the book now progressing slowly but surely, look out for a new “sneak peek” column that will start appearing on these pages every few months, along with further details about the book’s release date through Quality Communications, its cover price, format, page count and suchlike, once everything has been firmed up.
The Ones That Got Away
Not everything saw the light of day. As with music, movies and the rest of the entertainment world, there have been casualties. Here are a few of the more interesting ones out of the archives (with a bunch more, the Marvel titles here)…
But before Eric got the job, the call had been made far and wide that IPC/Fleetway was looking for a superhero artist. IPC had noticed the recently launched Marvel UK weeklies were making inroads on their sales, so they decided to take them on. Foolish, foolish, foolish. British artists (at the time) had virtually no experience of drawing dynamic superfolk, they specialised in war, sport and adventure, from the realistic school to… well, Captain Hurricane!
The results were embarrassing. Tom Kerr (above left) was great at the likes of Black Axe, The Saxon Avenger (for Buster) but suddenly, faced with a superhero, it looks like he panicked! Even the normally reliable Spanish and South American studios fared little better, with Antonio Garcia (above middle and right) failing to capture the prerequisite wow factor.
So when even fellow Fleetway stalwart Mike (Darkie’s Mob) Western failed to excite (left), dear old Eric (right) got the gig! It was all the brainchild of managing editor Jack leGrand (or Jack leFortyGrand as we called him when he took early retirement!). He and designer Doug Church were the men behind JNP55. That was the hush-hush code name for the project. IPC was always in fear of deadly rivals DC Thomson, of Beano and Dandy fame, hearing about their new ideas through loose-lipped freelancers so they were know as Juvenile New Projects, and this was JNP 55, the fifty fifth new idea since this cloak-and-dagger coding had been created only a few years earlier.
And they spent a small fortune on it! Not only did the cover go through multiple redesigns, but the content too. It was intended to have two back-up strips, it was a weekly after all, and even Eric Bradbury would be hard pressed to maintain a more than a 15-page episode an issue! In the initial mock-up, Zarga Man of Mystery (which ended up in Buster) also appeared alongside The Last Warrior and Spaceship X41 – neither of which got beyond the scripting launchpad.
The second mock-up had back-ups Jackman (don’t ask!), Brannigan – The Busted Sergeant (pass), Jesus Blasco’s Tales of the Nightcomer (now you’re talking!) Double Dynamite (which ended up in the watered-down Action), Ken Reid’s Dare-A-Day Davy and Freewheelers (another one that got away). With that little lot to help, I guess they sensibly realised that even Eric could never manage 15 pages a week!
Most of the following pages have never been seen outside of the IPC offices of 1974, so here’s a first…
Buried from sight for over 36 years, so much misguided effort. And not the last by a long way…
Three years on, Williams was looking to build up its comics side. It already had strongly established titles in UK editions of MAD, Laurel & Hardy, Tarzan and Korak. My job was to add more.
With its distribution side, Thorpe & Porter, having a monopoly on getting US comics into the newsagent, a homegrown super hero title seemed a natural once more. But British Super Heroes starring Big Ben: The Man With No Time For Crime failed to excite the sales department and it took me a further seven years to get the title star into print in Warrior.
The Kung Fu TV series and Akira Kurosawa’s samurai films were all the rage back then. We’d already produced two poster mags about David Carradine’s martial arts priest wandering the wild west, so a comic dedicated to such seemed another natural.
Despite a stunning piece of cover art by Oliver Frey and three strips featuring a Chinese kung fu master wandering the wild west (hey, nobody was looking for originality here!), a 17th century samurai and an avenging ninja, Oriental Heroes also ended up being spiked.
This was an early 1980s Quality concept. Dave Reeder and his gang were beavering away with Halls of Horror, me and mine were Warrioring and videos were suddenly all the rage. All those old (and new) horror and SF gems were suddenly available without you having to look in Radio Times to see what time they were being broadcast. It was a lot of hard work, there were hundreds to choose from – well, one thousand one hundred by our counting!
So we had the bright idea of producing a listing-style magazine for them all! Interspersed with a few features on key sub-genres and the like of course, but giving full cast and credits, a brief synopsis and comment, so you’d know what to look for and what to avoid in you local video store. We even had all the supposed “video nasties” of the time, but that was our undoing.
Mary Whitehouse, Lord Longford and their League of Moral Decency (or somesuch) were on the rampage. Irish comedian Dave Allen was declared as “offensive, indecent and embarrassing”, Tom Baker’s Doctor Who was said to “contain some of the sickest, most horrible material”. In The Times newspaper, noted barrister Geoffrey Robertson described her obvious homophobia by saying “Her fear of homosexuals was visceral”. Author Dennis Potter and The National Theatre felt her wrath too. In fact, little could escape her ire, except her TV favourites: Dixon of Dock Green, Neighbours and the snooker coverage.
But horror films were her favourite target. She never watched them of course, true to the adage of “I’ve never tried Guinness because I don’t like it”. She just KNEW they would be irredeemable.
So with her followers, she actually pushed through a campaign against “video nasties”, resulting in the Video Recordings Act 1984, with its list of banned videos. A ludicrous list at that, including such films as Samuel Fuller’s The Big Red One. We all knew it was about the bloody mess that was World War I – she obviously assumed from the title it was about something more sexual!
So the wholesale trade was in fear and wouldn’t touch it. We’d been responsible about it all, we even put a “video nasties” warning on page three (see above). We’d got it all ready to roll, all 1,100 reviews were written, typeset and Cow Gummed up, but Video Fantasy still bit the dust! Whitehouse? Grrr!
VIDEO SCIENCE FANTASY (1981)
This one didn’t even get that far! Because the 1980s was an age where the wholesale term “sale or return” actually meant it, we the publishers actually did get our unsolds back. Nowadays you get one sheet of paper, an affidavit, telling you how many unsold copies are scattered around the country’s trade depots and will be destroyed within 14 days if you don’t arrange to collect them! So, with over 170,000 printed of the first three Starburst issues that I’d published before selling the title to Marvel Comics, I had quite a few back that I thought I’d put to good use.
I’d been trained, while editing the UK MAD, never to have stories start on the inside front, or finish on the inside back page. They had to be self-contained. Why? So the covers could be ripped off all the sales returns, the interiors could then be glued together into threes and a “new” MAD Extra (or DC Double-Double comic for that matter with their leftovers) could then go on sale.
So I thought I’d do the same. A nice new cover, same old contents. Don’t know if it was a feeling of guilt or simply not knowing any binding companies, but I decided against it! Quite liked the cover though, good strong contrasting colours and ET drawing your eye to the magazine title. Not too pokey a job for a Cow Gum and Letraset mock-up nearly 30 years ago.
A shame really, because looking at the mock-up, this was would have been great. Despite a somewhat flat-headed Darth Vader on the cover (and a title logo somewhat lacking in design subtlety) it had some great contents.
It featured all my regular writers (Brosnan, Vahimagi, Crawley, Pattison) coupled with the Game Magazine designers. While Warner Bros/Williams had turned down Starburst (thus allowing me to go ahead and publish it myself) they had a last-minute change of mind and commissioned an 80-page full colour extravaganza with the then high cover price of 95p – almost three times House of Hammer‘s tag!
Can’t remember for the life of me why it was canned, but we got as far as layout with the finished text and visuals and, as I said, there were some great features…
The inevitable Star Wars article was the lead, all 16 pages, followed by the first of a three part History of Science Fiction in Films by John Brosnan. Coming in at 16 pages again, it was broken down into segments across the magazine. Tony Crawley contributed the somewhat trite-sounding Star Wars vs 2001: A Space Odyssey, which read better than it sounded. Tise Vahimagi wrote the 10-page Mechanical Men of the Movies while the centre section was given over to a fantastic array of SF posters from around the world.
Damn, but if we could have just changed that cover I’d have bought it!
Kid gangs were all the rage in humour comics. Bash Street Kids, The Swots and the Blots, Lord Snooty and his Pals, The Gaswork Gang… lots of them. And Asterix had been a perennial favourite. So I thought if I could merge the two ideas together, it was sure to be a winner.
Full of characters with silly Roman names, it took the usual adult-as-fallguy theme, but instead of the parent, teacher or policeman as the target, I continued this established anti-authority approach with a sneaky Roman ne’er do well, Odius Venemous. Must admit I’ve often wondered if people born with names like Victor von Doom or Vandal Savage could ever grow up to be anything but villains!
But getting back to Little Caesar, Barry Appleby was equally keen on extra freelance work and our mutual drinking friend John Aldrich was fed up of only getting lettering assignments so he was definitely up for inking it. In keeping with the tradition that Leo Baxendale had created all the best kid gang strips, they took to drawing it up in a quasi-Baxendale style.
But the reception was lukewarm, so John never finished inking it. That was when I realised that a career in writing humour comics was not for me!
One of the reworked-for-America dummies we put together to make our black and white magazine-sized Warrior strips fit into the US colour comic format. While we intended Pressbutton and Marvelman to get their own titles, I didn’t feel V for Vendetta would be able to hold its own (hey, even editors get it wrong sometimes!). So it was originally to be part of an anthology, initially alongside Warpsmiths, Shandor and Big Ben. Had Pacific not gone out of business before the first issue came out, and had V author Alan Moore not had his brief romance with DC, we’d have retained the rights as well as getting a higher reprint fee than DC offered.
Whether Warner Bros would have even noticed it, let alone make a film out of it is another matter entirely…
And below are the second versions, there’s probably the horror one around somewhere but I don’t recall the same “house style” being applied. I kinda liked the idea of them all having a family look, but I’ve always been big on brand recognition (looking back almost obsessed by such, you could say!). But an amazing coincidence that they all lend themselves to such uniformity…
While the title ended up being used for pensioners (what a waste!) this was to be the pinnacle of the year I spent reworking the IPC inventory for the US market as Quality Periodicals (see here for the full story). My previous attempt at an upmarket glossy, Zone for Marvel UK (see here, halfway down the page) hadn’t been realised, and sadly this one got no further. But in the interim period Heavy Metal had paved the way for America to have glossy magazine-sized comics and IPC had some truly wonderful material gathering dust, a lot of it self-contained 6-8 page colour work from annuals and specials.
Sure, it would have been peppered with the 2000 AD mainstays, but because of its high production values, it was also to incorporate work by some of Britain’s top talent including Ron Embleton, Frank Bellamy and Ian Kennedy – from a time when British comics were world leaders, both in sales and quality.
And if sales (hence profits) were good enough, like with MAD and Marvel before, I would soon have started reinvesting in new material too.
Even back then, there was a Fleetway licensed property which had been totally forgotten, despite the TV series having been syndicated around the world and having made its star a household name and an early choice to play James Bond.
Danger Man ran in Lion comic for 13 weeks from June 11, 1966, each two page installment beautifully drawn by Jesus Blasco. Right is the opening page from the first installment (click the thumbnail to see it hugely enlarged in all its glory!).
When we unearthed it, I immediately got our Quality Periodicals team on with resizing stats of the huge 15×20″ twice-up originals into a US comics format, with two Lion pages cut up into into three smaller US ones, to be part of our second (non-2000 AD) wave of colour comic launches.
Sadly, we never got beyond our first wave so the end product exists only as a mock-up dummy in an old filing cabinet. But, for historians and McGoohan fans, below is the first issue cover (sneakily incorporating both the Prisoner logo and the Johnny Rivers song from the US series rename into the cover) and a resized two page spread. As all purists know, The Prisoner was NOT a continuation of Danger Man, of course, so the topline obviously refers to McGoohan rather than his John Drake identity!
To be continued…
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