The Arena Years

The Sez Dez column has been around a frightening number of years for a range of publishers. But perhaps the most obscure version (at least in comics fans’ eyes) was when it had one of its biggest audiences, surfacing in Arena, “the world’s fastest-growing men’s magazine”. I say perhaps because unless you are Italian and of a certain generation, the most obscure was probably my similar column for Italy’s Star Comics in the 1990s. But that’s one for another day.

Arena covers

For Arena, it was in 2002 to 2004 when one of the commissioning editors was a comics fan and wanted me to give outspoken commentary on the new launches of the day. This made it an interesting departure for me as I was still producing Comics International at the time and, as editor, I felt I shouldn’t show any personal bias in a trade magazine. So this gave me a chance to say what I really thought!

Arena Dez columns

While I wasn’t crazy about the main header they gave the column – From All Good Seedy Depressing Comic Shops – I didn’t kick off too much as it was a fantastic opportunity to show people there was more to comics than The Beano and Batman. Besides, I was on a good rate for it.

Continuing my belief of “If tha’s nowt good to say, don’t say owt at all” I generally picked titles which I thought were worthwhile reading – there’s no mileage in putting the medium down to outsiders! Here are some of them (so you don’t have to strain your eyes on the visuals above)…

Marvel’s Buffalo Soldiers

Arena Truth cover(Arena #131, February 2003) Disgracefully tardy for an industry over 30 years old, Marvel Comics was the first publisher to introduce black superheroes with its inappropriate and uncomfortably named Black Panther in 1966.

Fast forward 36 years and the self-styled House of Ideas, invigorated by its wave of hit movies, is now kicking over one of its bigger stones as writer Robert Morales and artist Kyle Baker tell us that Captain America was originally black.

The six-issue story, Captain America: Truth [$3.50, issues 1 and 2 now on sale], echoes the infamous Tuskegee Experiment of 1932. A shameful episode in the history of US race relations, the government of the time told 399 poor black Alabama sharecroppers they were being treated for “bad blood”. In reality, they had contracted syphilis and were left untreated for 40 years in order to discover the disease’s effect.

Marvel’s Truth #1 suggests that the Captain America super-serum developed to create World War II’s perfect fighter was first tried on a small unit of black soldiers. Upon success, the anonymous guinea pigs were cast aside in favour of blue-eyed blond Steve Rogers. A beautifully crafted computer enhanced series, Truth avoids stereotypes in this fantastic yet socially relevant story. With perfect narrative, it explores the creation of one of the world’s most recognisable superheroes, uncovering some startling information along the way.

Y – The Last Man (DC/Vertigo)

Arena Y The Last Man 1 cover(Arena #132, March 2003) During her brief tenure as an editor for New York’s DC Comics, cut short by a personality clash with her supposed betters, comics journalist Heidi MacDonald pulled off a minor miracle. Working with a motley crew of B-list creators she hatched the first hit title for the “mature readers” Vertigo imprint since Preacher and The Sandman.

In Y: The Last Man (named after the Y chromosome and lead character Yorick, not a cash-in follow up to X-Men) previously low-profile writer Brian K. Vaughan presents a post-Apocalypse world with a twist, sort of an Omega Man meets Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!

Alas, poor Yorick – he’s the sole survivor of a plague which wipes out all mankind, leaving only woman not-so-kind in charge. Whatever you’d do in such a situation, Yorick wants to track down his girlfriend. All the women in the world to chose from and he’s trying to get from America to Australia for one in particular. Beth is obviously more than a girl in a million, one in three billion in fact.

Another twist is in the shape of Yorick’s sister, Hero (their father was a Classic Literature teacher) who’s just had her left bazooma chopped off to join a gang of militant amazons.

It may sound cheesy, but it’s proven so popular – each issue selling out within days — that AOL-Warner subsidiary DC Comics rush released its first two issues as a collected Y: The Last Man Double Feature Edition and has a first-five issue compilation, Y: The Last Man – Unmanned, on sale for $12.95 at the same time as #6 reaches stores.

The Preacheresque art is by newcomer Pia Guerra and veteran inker Jose Marzan Jr. Balancing out the male/female creative team, the unlikely named Pam Rambo adds a broad palette of deep colours to make this a perfect first taster for non-comics readers, and a great investment for those with an eye to capitalism.

The Fantastic Four: Unstable Molecules (Marvel)

Arena Unstable Molecules cover(Arena #133, April 2003) Retcon rules at the House of Ideas. While its Spider-Man, Daredevil, Hulk, X-Men and Blade are all making waves on cinema screens, Marvel’s first family continues to languish in the four-colour funnies print-only world. Which can be useful if you want to fool around with continuity without having to pander to (aka: cash in on) the whims of Hollywood.

Enter one James Sturm, writer/artist of the graphic novel of 2001 (according to The Golum’s Mightiest Swing – but known for little else. Proving it’s where you are more than who you are, Sturm earbashed Marvel editors at US comics conventions about producing a 24-like Fantastic Four superhero arthouse miniseries and got it green-lighted.

His idea, set in a single day of 1959, tells readers that The Thing, The Human Torch, Mr Fantastic and the Invisible Woman were all based on real people. So there’s no spandex and no superpowers (other than the US government). Essentially, it’s a mock biography of totally fictional characters, backed up with po-faced scholarly footnotes at the end of the comic.

Finished art (over Sturm’s layouts) is supplied by Guy Davis, an acquired moody but scratchy taste who complements the script perfectly, and is best known for his film noir work on Sandman Mystery Theatre.

A bizarre concept unlikely to boost Marvel’s coffers a jot, this is one of those nice little self-contained titles perfectly suited to anybody who doesn’t want to be seen reading The Fantastic Four in public, but wants a quick hit of nostalgia with a twist.

Jack Staff (Image)

Arena Jack Staff cover(Arena #135, June 2003) Being paid to confuse and belittle Americans has been a favourite pastime of the comics-creating Brit pack for the last 20 years and they’ve revelled in it. Throwing in as many archaic Anglo-Saxon curses and profanities as possible with a healthy dose of colloquialisms from Cockney rhyming slang to broad Geordie phonetics has become a great game.

Maybe it’s down to frustration. Most of these highly paid four colour fictioneers find the only outlet for their fantasies to be in American comics. Long gone are the days of a burgeoning domestic adventure comics market that they all grew up on. All we’re left with now are Judge Dredd and chums and that’s about it. Despite Britain being the home of comics (128 years and counting), it’s become as much a victim of the Brain Drain as almost any other industry. No more cheap and cheerful adventure weeklies, with their ragbag of assorted stories, all continued next week. Gone are the days of such stirringly-named 10p titles as Valiant, Victor, Lion, Tiger and the rest. Enter Sheffield’s Paul Grist, local lad done good.

Paul was a fervent young reader in the heyday of weekly Brit-fixes and wanted nothing more when he grew up than to be a part of an industry which sold over 10 million copies a week 30 odd years ago, but now can manage little more than 10,000 a week. So, with no obvious outlet for his ideas, he started publishing his own black and white comics and sending them out to anybody and everybody. It worked. After ten years of his Dancing Elephant imprint, he’s been noticed by America. California-based Image Comics (third biggest after Superman and Spider-Man publishers DC and Marvel) is now offering him the prestige of full colour printing and top rank profile for his uniquely British concept, Jack Staff

While all the high profile Brit comics writers have been happy to mess up American minds with their turns of phrase, Paul Grist goes one step further. His Jack Staff actually reads like an old weekly comic, not only with a variety of seemingly different 3 to 5 page episodic strips per issue, but also featuring mildly remixed characters familiar to virtually nobody outside of 30 something Anglos. Robot Archie anybody? How about Captain Hurricane, Kelly’s Eye and the Spider? He’s even managed so far to throw in Dad’s Army (in a WWII flashback) and Bramble & Son, Vampire Hunters – better known to us as a contrary pair of rag and bone men.

Grist’s page composition, coupled with his minimalist sketchy style and original approach to storytelling makes it all great uncomplicated fun, placing no large demands on the reader, but neither insulting anybody’s intelligence. Despite the in-jokes running rampant, this is the kind of all-ages comicbook we deserve to see more of.

2000 AD Megazine (Rebellion)

Arena Megazine cover(Arena #136, July 2003) If only he’d been born in the USA, he’d be worth millions by now. Fascist future cop Judge Dredd, not to be confused with smutty ska/reggae revivalist rude boy Judge Dread or the original spoof by Prince Buster, has celebrated his 27th year of publication by losing top billing in his own magazine, or Megazine as those witty comics editors christened it. Oh, the shame of it all. The hero of grungers everywhere, old stoney-face suffered the ultimate ignomy when Hollywood wiped out all his potential in one strike and sent him hustling back to his comicbook roots. No X-franchise or Spider-licence here it seems, as his 12-year old UK title had a recent makeover resulting in The Judge Dredd Megazine, the bigger thicker monthly spin-off from weekly 2000 AD, being remoulded as the confusingly-titled 2000AD Megazine with Dredd booted off the cover and his logo shrunk to microtype in favour of obscure jokes and even more obscure character paintings. Stallone has a lot to answer for.

But, amazingly enough, the U-turn worked, resulting in a £3.95 100 page disparate strip-fest. Dredd still heads up the contents with a 15-page a month serial, but is followed by an assortment of colour and black and white comics, old and new. For those who grew up with a weekly fix of Tharg-induced thrill power, Celtic berserker-king Slaine provides 20 pages of budget-busting nostalgia, while the dodgy Darkie’s Mob adds a bizarre World War II angle, reprinted from the 1970s comic Battle. Gay vampire slaying priest Devlin Waugh and FamilyThe Sopranos with magic – add a contemporary feel to the title while Young Middenface is plain well indescribable.

As far as Brit comics go, this could be our last best hope. And under new publishers Rebellion, the computer game company that gave you Rainbow Six and Aliens vs Predator, there seems to be life in the old dog yet.

Batman: Hush (hardback; DC Comics)

Arena Batman Hush cover(Arena #137, August 2003) So, how would you like your Jim Lee Batman served? There’s the finely sliced 22-page piecemeal, at $2.25 a month. Or the double-sized serving for only $3.95. And, for the true aficionado, the $19.99 deluxe special.

In other words, if you’ve got it, flaunt it. Nineties X-Men fan fave Jim Lee dumped the Marvel best-seller to set up his own company, WildStorm. But, preferring to draw, he then sold the whole lot to AOL Time-Warner’s DC Comics and is now artist on Batman. Obviously a believer in safety first, one of the ex-best hopes of the indie market now draws a character created in 1939… and has made it the US’s top title, with over 100,000 sales a month. Forget your movie-tied X-Men, Daredevil, Hulk and Spider-Man, Batman’s back on top.

Aided by Smallville scripter Jeff Loeb and inker Scott Williams, Lee’s Batman offering is a 12-month serial, thankfully printed in the regular monthly, not one of those irritating spin-off series. Capitalising on the popularity, the first two episodes were collected in February as a Batman Hush Double Feature (for those who came in late) and now book and comicshop frequenters can get the first five episodes as a 128-page hardcover.

Overpriced and overplayed maybe, but while the Catwoman and Poison Ivy co-starring saga has not even reached half-way yet, it’s a quality act. Lee draws a mean hi-tech Caped Crusader with clean detailed fuss-free art while Loeb takes advantage of the 12 issue arc, letting us get inside Batman’s head as the mystery slowly unfurls.

Choose your format now, or hang on another seven months for the inevitable 272 page doorstop collection.

Global Frequency (DC/WildStorm)

Arena Global Frequency cover(Arena #138, Spetember 2003) Mix a 21st century version of Thunderbirds’ International Rescue with the Ross Kemp Ultimate Force nasties and you get the idea of the latest hit title from the pen of current US comics badboy Warren Ellis.

Having terrified DC Comics execs for the last few years with his version of Superman and Batman as a totally OTT gay couple in The Authority, the Southend-on-Sea scripter yanks them off life-support with Global Frequency. Nothing too naughty for the sensitive US palates here in his self-contained stories of a worldwide network of 1001 agents – the Global Frequency – who are able to leap to the rescue whenever international terrorism rears its unacceptable head.

Blood, guts and mayhem abound alongside skulduggery, deceit and homicide as every month a new band of agents, each a world-leading specialist in their own field, is called upon by enigmatic leader Miranda Zero to make things right again in 22 pages.

Great art from a range of the industry’s top talent coupled with unique cover design bring to life Ellis’s fast-paced actioner, brimming with fad gadgets and pseudo-science.

Eight issues currently available, with a collection sure to follow.

Superman: Red Son (DC Comics)

Arena Superman Red Son cover(Arena #139, October 2003) Increasingly a part of the entertainment superstar elite, comics creators are now recognised to be more important to the money machine than the properties they write and draw. Along with Warren (Global Frequency) Ellis, fellow Brit Mark Millar is the leading badboy of US comicbooks, showing a healthy disrespect for their contemporary legends and reworking superheroes in epic Hollywood disaster movie fashion.

Millar, who honed his craft assisting Grant (The Invisibles) Morrison, gave the ailing AOL/Time Warner’s DC Comics division a publicist’s dream in his top-selling The Authority, but was rewarded with heavy-handed censorship. He replied by moving across to Marvel and earning bigger bucks by reinventing X-Men and The Avengers for their Ultimates line.

Unpublished for almost a year, Superman: Red Son was the last major project he worked on for DC before his very public blackballing. Finally printed as a three part glossy, it perfectly illustrates the puritanical DC’s loss as Millar sets up a parallel reality in which baby Kal-El’s spaceship crashlands in Russia in the 1930s.

With Dave Johnson’s artwork evoking classic Soviet agitprop, brimming with dark shadows and sharp angles, Millar avoids cliché and allows the communist Superman to retain his naïve altruism, while America’s Lex Luthor is soon government-sanctioned to destroy him. A ripping yarn for readers old or new.

Underground Genie (DC/Vertigo Comics)

Arena Underground Genie cover(Arena #140, November 2003) In the heady world of the comicbook cognoscenti, the award-winning Kyle Baker is very much an artist’s artist. Which is a shame. Kyle’s comics – invariably too rarefied a taste for the denizens of dingy comics dens – generally don’t sell well.

One time he came up with a twee little Superbaby-sitting story. When the publisher saw a printed copy of this $4.95 oversized extravaganza including Superbaby hiding in a microwave, fearing a backlash of readers emulating such with their sibling toddlers, he had the entire run recalled and pulped. Well, we are talking about people who need pictures to read their stories here.

Luckily the publisher forgot baby Kal-El can fly too or he’d probably dump the entire character with that logic.

So mischievous Kyle was moved across to the company’s Vertigo (mature readers) imprint to produce such class acts as King David (a Disney-styled retelling of David and Goliath) and his latest, Underground Genie. Basically, it’s a scattershot mix of Baker’s skewed views of relationships and what he calls “the absurdity of cultural assimilation” plus Ghost Chimp MD and The Adventures of God.

A perfect present for people who hate comics, it’s a large format 128-page collection of irreverent conjurings that would be make a meaty addition to anybody’s coffee table or toilet reads.

Striker – the comic

Arena Striker cover(Arena #141, December 2003) Reality check: Since 1985 you’ve been producing a comic strip for a national newspaper and it’s grown so popular that you’re getting half a million a year out of it. So this July you quit to do something else. Something that is so risky, you have to put your house up against it. No, really, that’s what Pete Nash has done.

He’d been creating Striker for The Sun for over 17 years and now he’s pulled it so he can move Warbury Warriors across into their own comic. Titled Striker, it’s sort of a Roy of the Rovers for the 21st century but with ultraslick CGI-style artwork and a print run of 100,000 a week. He’s a brave man, our Pete.

Echoing the approach The Eagle used on Dan Dare, back when your grandad read comics, Pete’s gathered a talented bunch of in-house artists to help him draw the strip, and even pulled in The Sunday Mirror’s sports editor to run the show. Like we said, he’s a brave man, our Pete.

He even slapped The Sun with a lawsuit when they refused to run his launch ads because they claimed he was in competition with them. (So it’s official, The Sun IS a comic!)

End product: the first new weekly British comic for over 20 years that’s worth buying. Not only is the art very polished, but it’s a great read. Even if you’re not a footie fan, it’s a good laugh and comes highly recommended. And, because it’s homegrown, you don’t have to track down your nearest comic shop to pick it up, you can get it anywhere!

Godspeed: The Kurt Cobain Graphic (Omnibus)

Arena Godspeed cover(Arena #143, February 2004) Those bumper overpriced funnybooks pretentiously known as graphic novels generally stick with the contemporary myth of the superhero if they’re American. When they do produce something different, the shock value is sufficient for them to be showered with awards from the condescending grown up print world of magazines and newspapers.

We do it different over here. The nearest we’ve got to a superhero is Judge Dredd, an out-and-out fascist future cop. But one of the Judge Dredd stable of comics creators, Jim McCarthy, has now jumped in with first-time author and spunk rocker Barnaby Legg and Yorkshire illustrator Steve “Flameboy” Beaumont to document the life and death of Nirvana’s own flameboy, Kurt Cobain, in a 96 page full colour illustrated paperback.

Fluctuating between subjective dream state and objective reality Godspeed descends into the dark palette of a tortured self-image as it offers a respectful and fitting epitaph which doesn’t let down either the legion of hardened Nirvana fans or merely curious outsiders.

The visuals are first rate, and despite the heavy responsibility, these guys have pulled it off remarkably well, going beyond the basic facts to produce a worthy tribute to a talented, tortured genius.

The Losers: Ante Up (DC/Vertigo)

Arena The Losers cover(Arena #144, March 2004) Call it fatalism, but The Losers is a popular choice of title. There was a crap 1970 Jack Starrett movie (Uncle Sam recruits five Hell’s Angels to terrorise the Viet Cong on armoured bikes and rescue an American “advisor” from Cambodia). An English heavy punk band (Steve, Tim, Conrad and Pug) took the name, but split in 1994 after being held at gunpoint by an insane Polish psychopath in Berlin. It was also the title of an off-genre 1993 book by fantasy author David Eddings (a modern-day morality play, and a treatise on the ills and insanity of our social services system).

…Plus it’s a far out comicbook by ex-2000 AD editor turned gutsy scripter Andy Diggle and the no-nonsense bold ‘n’ brash art of the enigmatic “Jock”. Thanks to savvy marketing, you don’t have to scrabble for back issues, as Batman publisher DC-Vertigo has promptly collected the first four issues, The Losers: Ante Up, into a tightly-written $9.95 action-thriller on sale now.

Even DC Comics had already used the title, but only as a World War II piece of nonsense. Here it’s straight to the jugular with a pissed-off team of six black ops ex-CIA agents including a female Afghani freedom fighter, who saw something they shouldn’t have. The suits wrongly thought they’d solved their problem with a helicopter “accident” and now our heroes are out for revenge.

Probably the best action movie you’ve never seen.

The Matrix Comics (Burleyman)

Arena Matrix coverArena #145, April 2004) How to Succeed in Comics Without Really Trying: Make a few cult movies or TV series and the editors will beg you to write them.

It worked for Babylon 5’s Joe Michael Straczynski, currently revitalising Spider-Man comics. Dogma’s Kevin Smith worked wonders on Green Arrow. Quentin Tarantino is the ultimate comics geek and apparently on the brink of writing for Marvel.

So what about Andy and Larry Wachowski? They’re actually failed comics writers, having worked on Marvel’s short-lived Clive Barker horror titles. Then, part inspired by Vertigo’s The Invisibles, they came up with The Matrix.

Unable to kick their roots, they then set up the online Matrix Comics, inviting top artists to produce strips and writing a few themselves. Which is fine, if you like your R&R on screen. Now, finally, they have transferred the best of them to print in a 158 page colour collection under their own Burleyman Entertainment imprint, with a sequel promised to follow.

It’s the ultimate in cool as a coffee table accessory. Good gags, stunning graphics and a bunch of trippy stories with namedrop creators like Neil (Sandman) Gaiman, Dave (Watchmen) Gibbons and Bill (Elektra Lives) Sienciewicz. £16.99 well spent.

Wanted (Top Cow Productions/Image Comics)

Arena Wanted cover(Arena #148, July 2004) Hey look, it’s MacMillar time! The ruling Brit enfant terrible of the US comics fanboy scene is Glaswegian cheeky boy Mark Millar – he who achieves maximum national press coverage simply by making things up. Butler-served champagne breakfasts, Madonna screenplays, multi-million income, the sort of nonsense the tabloids fall for every time.

Fortunately his comics fiction is as inspired as his PR fiction. From his 1989 Saviour launchpad (superheroic second comings) to his current revisionist X-Men and Spider-Man reworkings, he rarely fails to deliver innovative storytelling.

And he loves to shock. His latest demented crop includes another Son of God pop, Chosen (12 year old suddenly discovers he’s the returned JC with a flight booked for destiny in Israel), The Unfunnies (anthropomorphic internet porn) and Wanted.

Wanted is a real world superhero comic, but without any superheroes. Because they’ve all been neutralised and reality has been rewritten so nobody remembers they ever existed. It’s all down to the entire planet’s super-criminal community getting together to become an unstoppable force. And winning. Enter our lead character, Wesley Gibson, one alienated meek ipod guy whose wife’s screwing his best friend and gets spat on by every passing Spike Lee extra. As Millar puts it, “Spina bifida babies have more backbone”. So he does a Michael Douglas Falling Down turnaround and takes up the offer to train to become a sonofabitch supervillain himself.

Superb draftsman Geoff (JG) Jones provides intense photorealistic art, complemented by excellent computer colouring by Paul Mounts for this six-issue mini in all good seedy comic shops now and sure to become a bumper collection any time soon.

The Red Snake and The Bug Boy (DH Publishing)

Arena The Red Snake(Arena #149, August 2003) With zombies and ghoulies making max box office and Japanese translations dominating the Western graphic novel market, an unholy marriage of the two seems a dead cert. Which is no surprise to manga mayhem meister Hideshi Hino, who’s been terrifying oriental comics readers with his twisted tales for over 20 years.

Now translated into English, Hino-horror hits comics shops and sicker bookshops this summer with two launch titles, both in the manga pocketbook format. The Red Snake is a cross between The Simpsons and The Mansons with an added dash of Alien. Also described as “Alice in Wonderland meets Evil Dead“, it is followed by The Bug Boy, X-certificate Kafka morphing grotesqueness with such classic lines as “Soon his whole body was a rotting mass of jelly”.

Definitely not for the squeamish, a wonderful antidote to such sickly-sweet Japanese titles as Sailor Moon, this is the stuff of seriously bad tripping and definitely not for kids. So start your splatterfest collection now, because Tokyo’s DH Publishing has a back catalogue of over 200 heinous Hino titles ready for translation and is threatening us with publishing them, alongside the writer/artist’s new work, ad infinitum.

Charley’s War: Day One (Titan Books)

Arena Charleys War cover(Arena #151, October 2004) It’s a popularly held belief that the snootily-named Graphic Novels have saved comics from near-extinction. What was once available by the million in newsagents across the UK and USA had deteriorated into an industry purely focused on the ever-decreasing anorak market, served only by those creepy and usually seedy backstreet comics shops. Then some bright spark copied the European album format, with chunky “Best of” collections and a respectable identity and cover prices that bookshops couldn’t get enough of.

In the UK, ex-2000 AD editor Nick Landau got the rights to repackage Judge Dredd strips as graphic novels and, over the last 20 years has built an empire as Titan Books, with titles ranging from Buffy and Star Wars to The Simpsons and Superman. But along the way he has lost his backbone line as the new 2000 AD publishers, computer gamers Rebellion, have now taken the license back for themselves. The line replacement positively reeks of musty UK nostalgia, including collections of Dan Dare, Modesty Blaise and James Bond comic strips. But the cream of this new crop has to be Charley’s War (£14.99, 192 pages, on sale November).

Brutal and raw, it tells of July 1st 1916, when 20,000 British soldiers were killed and 38,000 wounded on the first day of the Battle of the Somme and of survivor, 16 year old Private Charley Bourne. Culled from the 1975 6p Battle newsprint weekly comic, the Pat Mills/Joe Colquhoun-created strip has long been celebrated for its authentic telling of life in the trenches during World War One and is a worthy Titan Books replacement for the fascist future of Judge Dredd.

The Originals (DC Comics)

Arena The Originals cover(Arena #153, December 2003) As a distant cousin of the whole celebrity shebang, the comics fraternity has its own little pantheon of star entertainers. A clutch of usually film-wannabe strip writers and artists can acquire cult followings for work considered revolutionary in a medium where cliché invariably rules. When a title, often in the much abused graphic novel format, breaks into mainstream sales charts its creators transcend their roots and achieve critical acclaim. Such a title is Watchmen, the 1986 multiple award winning benchmark for the next decade’s grim ‘n’ gritty take on spandex suited superhumans.

Despite being a combined effort by writer and artist, journalists constantly gave the author full credit, relegating artist and co-creator Dave Gibbons to workmanlike secondary status, despite his painstaking involvement taking at least four times that of writer Alan Moore.

Now, almost 20 years later, Gibbons has again taken on a two-year project, but this time in the auteur role, writing, drawing and even lettering his 160-page magnum opus, The Originals. Not to be dismissed as “mod-retro” Gibbons rises above the obvious, combining his memories of the Sixties with hard-edged science fiction in a Clockwork Orange fashion. As he summerises it, “I wanted to do a personal truth, to show the way it felt back then. My first seeing a horde of Lambrettas was like watching the Martians land, it was so alien. I didn’t want to do a retro documentary.”

With a self-imposed monochrome palette, Gibbons’ design-conscious drama of hover scooters, sharp Italian suits and gang feuds transcends revival status, displaying a master craftsman at his creative peak in both words and pictures.

True Brit (DC Comics)

Arena True Brit(Arena #154, January 2004) It seemed like a good idea at the time. Revered Brit comic writer John Cleese and equally revered Yank comic company DC coming together on a laff-a-minute Superman hardback with the premise of Superbaby landing in Weston-super-Mere. Throw in a West Bromwich-born artist and what could go wrong? Well, everything, actually.

It’s the wrong sort of comic routine for Cleese, who, despite the old Super Bicycle Repair Man sketch for Monty Python’s Flying Circus, couldn’t give a toss about Superman, and the well-past-his-sell-by-date artist, John Byrne, had emigrated to Canada aged seven.

For a 94-page speed read, it’s overpriced tosh which makes Benny Hill seem subtle. Byrne’s clichéd England looks like a suburb of Kansas and Cleese – unable or unwilling to write the actual script – merely threw in a couple of lame gags for an American ex-Python fanzine editor with no comics-writing pedigree to pad out.

A half-hearted effort right down to the title – Fawlty Powers would have been far better. Instead a weak pun on an old John Wayne movie was slapped on. Sadly, the end product was more True Shit than True Brit.

Overpriced, overhyped and over here.

Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq (Marvel)

Arena Combat Zone cover(Arena #156, March 2004) The use of American comicbooks as propaganda dates back almost to their 1930s origin so it’s no coincidence that sales peaked during World War II with the Armed Forces eagerly lapping up the latest Axis-bashing adventures of Superman, Captain Marvel and their cape ‘n’ cowl friends.

Even in the 1960s “Marvel Age of Comics” they were still at it; their history lessons for baby boomers telling us how Sgt Fury and his Howling Commandos had saved the free world from the Third Reich.

By the Eighties, a comicbook conscience had emerged, as The Nam set out to tell it straight, warts and all. But now, thanks to 9/11 and the Bush dynasty, we’re back to square one. Marvel’s latest grunts-with-guns launch is titled Combat Zone: True Tales of GIs in Iraq. You’d half expect Michael Moore to be the latest films-to-comics author for something like this, but no, we’re talking corporate America here.

This January launching $2.99 monthly is written by one Karl Zinsmeister. He’s a “respected” political observer, author (of Dawn over Baghdad, celebrating the US occupation) and war correspondent. He’s also editor in chief of the American Enterprise Magazine, house mag for what The Guardian newspaper calls a “barkingly neo-con think tank”, and also has strong ties to the oil industry, which is handy. It’s so big, in fact, that it was partly responsible for authoring the Bush administration’s current foreign policy doctrine.

The comic was to launch earlier but several artists approached point blank refused to draw it when its true nature was revealed. So now it’s down to Death of Superman’s Dan Jurgens to illustrate the factual five parter which editor Axel Alonso says, “is not about whether we should have been there or failed diplomacy”.

Damn straight with Zinsmeister writing it!

Author: Dez Skinn

The nostalic website of Guinness World Record holder Dez Skinn's life in publishing – producing books, comics and film magazines