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A View From The Cheap Seats:
The UK Invasion - Then and Now By Rich Watson
Ask any comics fan who the top writers and artists are today, and chances are that a sizable percentage of the names listed will be creators from the United Kingdom - the European island monarchy consisting of England, Wales, Scotland, and Northern Ireland. Over the past quarter century, UK creators have done much to change the face of American comics, coming as they do from an industry that mirrors the American one in many ways.
Throughout the first three quarters of the 20th century, the UK gave birth to such memorable and groundbreaking titles as: Adventure, a boys' comic that originated in the 20's; The Dandy and The Beano, all-ages humor magazines which pioneered the use of speech balloons; Eagle, home of Dan Dare, pilot of the future; its competitor Lion, featuring Captain Condor; and more. Today, the British comics market is most commonly associated with science fiction, much the same way American comics are identified with superheroes.
However, Hackney, London native Gary Spencer Millidge, of the fantasy series Strangehaven, remembers a different brand of comics from his youth. "Growing up in the latter part of the 60's, the biggest British influence on me was the 'Power Comics Group' - Pow!, Smash!, and Wham!, specifically, as they mixed the very best home-grown humour creators (Ken Reid, Leo Baxendale, Mike Higgs) with classic Lee/Kirby/Ditko Marvel reprints and even the US Batman newspaper strip." He describes the Power Comics as "one-to-three-page traditional-style British strips, featuring spoof detectives or gangs of school children, but mostly the cream of the crop. Nothing I can really compare it to stateside, nothing comes close."
2000 AD was the birthplace of much UK talent working today, and has been, along with Heavy Metal, extremely popular and influential both in Europe and the United States. The magazine originated in 1977 during a downturn in the British comics industry brought on by competition from imported American titles. Targeting the young male adolescent audience that had whet its appetite on science fiction films, the stories and characters in 2000 AD repackaged the more familiar conventions of the genre and gave them a grittier, urbane, punk rock kind of aesthetic, not unlike what was being done in the short-lived magazine Action a year earlier. From these beginnings, characters such as Judge Dredd, the futuristic law enforcer, exploded into popularity, and creators like Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, Kevin O'Neill, Alan Grant, and many others emerged. In the 80's, American publishers took notice, and began to lure them across the ocean. DC in particular became home to, in addition to these, Neil Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis, Steve Dillon, Peter Milligan, Brian Bolland, and more. Their arrival led to such seminal works as Swamp Thing, Hellblazer, Animal Man, Shade the Changing Man, Sandman, and of course, Watchmen - still considered by most to be the pinnacle of all that is great in comics. In 1993 the DC imprint Vertigo would gather together these titles under one roof, giving them a higher profile than ever.
"My memories of [2000 AD] are mostly good ones," says the Birmingham-born Antony Johnston, writer of Frightening Curves, Rosemary's Backpack, and the current Oni title Three Days In Europe. "When I was at school, 2000 AD was absolutely the focal point of my comics reading, and coincided with my own realisation that people actually made a living creating these things. So those two factors combined to make that period a very exciting one for me - incessantly devouring 2000 AD stories over and over again, trying to work out what made them tick and how things like panel transitions worked… It sounds like nostalgia to say it, but that really was a heyday for 2000 AD - an absolutely peak creative period, with top people being allowed to do pretty much whatever they wanted."
The magazine's success opened the British market up for more adult comics during the late 80's and early 90's, however they had a harder time finding an audience. "Comics in Britain have never really been considered by the general public as anything other than juvenile entertainment - pre-school and juniors only," says Millidge. "Adolescent boys had illustrated story-papers rather than comics traditionally. Superhero comics - mainly imported American comics - were patchily distributed and had more of a cult readership. Weekly comics aimed at younger children like The Beano sold in the hundreds of thousands."
Among the adult titles of this period were magazines like Escape, Deadline, Revolver, Pssst!, and Warrior, and while they did provide a training ground for creators and generated a few hits (like Jamie Hewlett and Alan Martin's Tank Girl and Alan Moore's Marvelman and V for Vendetta), none of these titles lasted. "British comics - specifically more mature comics - were not really an option as as regards to a paying career," says Millidge. "There was only really the choice between the narrow sci-fi genre of pre-pubescent/adolescent 2000 AD and a handful of UK-originated superhero strips at Marvel UK. I think most British comics creators aspired to work for American comics and saw it as a logical career progression rather than selling out."
Though these titles are gone, some creators fondly remember them. "For some reason 2000 AD didn't exist for me," says Andi Watson of Leeds, creator of Geisha, Skeleton Key, and Breakfast After Noon, among other titles, and co-writer of the forthcoming series Namor for Marvel. Watson (no relation) grew up on Star Wars comics and children's comics like Beano. "When I got back into comics at art school I'd pick up the occasional 2000 AD but it never struck a chord with me. I did consistently read Crisis, a kind of hotchpotch, vaguely political anthology that always had something interesting going on even if it didn't work. It was willing to take risks, whereas 2000 AD, to me, has stuck to fairly traditional sci-fi genre stuff. That's fine, just not to my personal taste. The two books that had the biggest influence on me early on were Love and Rockets and Akira.
"Crisis, in a sense was ahead of its time. Sure, it picked easy targets, foxhunting aristocracy and whatnot, but there was a concern with anti-capitalism/anti-globalisation, the kind of thing the No Logo generation could sympathise with nowadays. It looked at the effects of American foreign policy on the developing world - the kind of concerns we have right now." By comparison, Watson adds, the British market is limited in its scope. "UK comics pretty much consists of 2000 AD, Beano, Dandy, and a host of licensed stuff. In their shoes, if I was given the choice between writing yet another Dredd strip and the Teletubbies or a creator-owned book at Vertigo, it's a no-brainer."
2000 AD, meanwhile, attempted to change with the times and explore adult subject matter as well, with mixed results. "Why did it change? It's hard to say," says Johnston. "I think some of it was because they had such a run of success with slightly more mature stories - not the subject matter as such, but the issues couched in them - that they felt they could keep pushing this boundary. And I'm sure some of it was also just to try and keep the audience who'd been with it since they were 10 - i.e., people like me. And it worked, up to a point, but eventually they hit a barrier where they wanted to address serious issues, but still weren't allowed to depict (or say) anything that wouldn't be acceptable in a PG certificate film. Which became faintly ridiculous, and eventually led to them trying to get the kids audience back again. Unfortunately, the kids don't seem interested these days."
Today, much of the top UK talent can be found working in the American market, including Warren Ellis (Transmetropolitan, Planetary, Authority), Mark Millar (Ultimates, Ultimate X-Men), Mike Carey (Lucifer), Paul Grist (Kane, Jack Staff), and more. "We have no industry to speak of in the UK any more," says Johnston. "And people in the UK have a very poor track record of keeping an eye on European comics. So I see creators much more ready to believe that they have to make superhero comics if they want to work in comics, and I think that's a bit sad."
Some haven't felt the need to follow that route, however. "I tend to focus on the smaller scale, the internal, the drama in day-to-day life," says Watson. "A JLA-saves-the-multiverse-again saga isn't my cup of tea… I create stories set in and about Britain but they're published in the US. Also, superheroes really only work in the US, they're born out of the American national character."
Millidge has self-published Strangehaven since 1995, and while he has made inroads in the US (thanks in part to the publisher Top Shelf acting as an American distributor), the book has enjoyed more success back home. "Strangehaven sells proportionately higher in the UK than the US compared to traditional superhero titles, but that's true of Vertigo titles and other mature reader titles. As British writers tend to write more adult-oriented stories, it's difficult to know whether it's the creator or the reading age level [that] is the main factor. The fact that I can promote the book more easily in the UK must also be responsible for higher sales. Strangehaven is also very specifically English, and I think that appeals to a certain Anglophile sector of the US market."
And as for the future? "The industry will hopefully move towards more diversity in subject matter, genres and formats," says Millidge, "and continued advances in the bookstore market will expose comics to a wider mainstream readership beyond the comic store ghetto."
"The UK comics industry was built on innovation and re-invention," says Johnston, "two things I think are vital to keep any entertainment medium alive."
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THE SILVER SCREEN:
[The following review of the movie Daredevil contains spoilers. If you haven't seen it yet, skip the next two paragraphs.]
So the latest comic book-based movie, Daredevil, opened on February 14, and while it wasn't perfect, it wasn't the schlock many fans feared it would be. The moodiness and gritty street level nature of the plot owes a great deal to The Crow, and in fact it rips off that film more than once - Daredevil's initials in a fire outline on the ground, for example. There's quite a bit of gratuitousness in places; another example being the playground fight between Matt Murdock and Elektra. At least that fight scene, however, was in daylight and clearly shot. Director Mark Steven Johnson films the other fight scenes with way too much cross-cutting and "atmosphere" effects, like the strobe lit bar and the constant rain (another Crow rip-off!). I found these scenes difficult to follow. The positive stuff: showing the physical toll crimefighting takes on Matt's body. Also, the concept of a sensory deprivation tank that Matt slips into to escape the noise of the city was an inspired touch and should be used in the comics if Marvel ever makes another Ultimate Daredevil book. The scene where young Matt discovers his powers in the hospital for the first time was creepy and wrenching. And the special effects used to indicate Daredevil's radar sense were done beautifully and used judiciously. The scene where Matt "sees" Elektra in the rain at her father's funeral was one example of using this remarkable effect to enhance a scene. There were even some lines and scenes lifted directly from the comic, which was very cool.
Ben Affleck in the title role uses the same cliché most superhero movies use: making his voice sound gruff when he's in costume! I found it funny more than anything else, along with his inexplicably scruffy hair. Jennifer Garner as Elektra was okay; more distinguishable for her fighting skills than for anything else, really, although I liked that the romance between her and Matt was played up. Michael Clarke Duncan as the Kingpin was good, though I would've liked to have seen more of him as the untouchable crime boss. The script talked about it, but we never really saw it. Colin Farrell is completely wasted as Bullseye. For a supposed "up-and-coming" star, he had very little to do other than look menacing and throw things at Daredevil. It's faithful to the book, but in the end the film still relies on many of the standard action movie cliches: the wise-cracking sidekick, the love interest who dies tragically, the bad-ass henchman of few words, even the head bad guy who vows vengeance on the hero in the end. I suppose they would've been tough to avoid entirely, but I was hoping this film would make them at least seem fresher somehow. While it has its moments, it falls short of true greatness. Take heart, though - between American Splendor, Bulletproof Monk, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Hulk and X2, 2003 is gonna be a helluva year for comics at the movies.
A few months ago I wrote about the forthcoming book The Fallen by Pete Stathis that I previewed at SPX. I've just learned that Slave Labor has picked it up and it will be part of the publisher's Amaze Ink imprint under the new name Evenfall. The March Previews, however, still has it as The Fallen under Blue Feather Press. It won't be listed with the Slave Labor titles (and the new name) until the May Previews. Issue one of the bi-monthly Evenfall will come out March 19, though your local retailer may still think it's The Fallen, so when you pre-order it be sure to make this change clear! I know it's a bit confusing, but it's worth it because this is a very good book. Thanks to my buddy Reid for the story.
A quick word on the Oscar nominations: if it were up to me, I'd give Todd Haynes' Far From Heaven the trifecta: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress. This was a remarkable film that recreated the visual look of the 50's and Julianne Moore owned it. I want her to win so badly, but people are saying Nicole Kidman's gonna get it instead since she didn't win last year. I dunno. I've found it harder and harder to care about the Oscars like I used to, yet come March 23, I'll be watching it like everyone else. What can I say? None of the Best Picture nominees scream "Best Picture" at me. I thought Gangs of New York was overrated, but I'm inclined to go with that as my pick since Miramax is so eager to make sure Martin Scorcese finally gets an Oscar. I really hate the way Hollywood releases all its Oscar bait films at the end of the year. Sure, they'll be fresh in the Academy voters' minds, but equally good Oscar-caliber films from earlier in the year often end up completely ignored as a result. If the Academy had any sense they'd extend the voting period. Won't happen, but I can dream, can't I?
OFF THE RACK:
The long awaited return of Astro City (DC/Wildstorm) turned out to be everything I hoped for - no surprise there. As usual, Kurt Busiek uses a single character's perspective - in this case, the hotel doorman Pete - to bring the city to life, and by so doing, reveals what makes this character's life unique. Brent Anderson's art looks sketchier here than in Rising Stars, but he nails it when it comes to detail and distinctiveness, especially with the ordinary people. This book is a true labor of love and it's wonderful to see it back…
Another comic returning from limbo is Lady Death (CrossGen/Code 6), with a new look and a new story from creator Brian Pulido. Unfortunately, while the artwork by Ivan Reis was lovely, I found the dialogue highly melodramatic and unconvincing. A lot of lip service is paid to how menacing the Eldritch are supposed to be, but they did not come across as threatening or scary. And the fear of Hope, the half-Eldritch protagonist, is presented awkwardly: no one believes she's evil at first, but later on they have a sudden change in attitude that's given no real explanation. I hoped this would be worth the hype, but it wasn't…
H-E-R-O (DC), on the other hand, was worth the hype. Former Small Press Syndicate member Will Pfeifer presents a gripping opening chapter to this 21st-century revival of Dial H for Hero with a believable lead character suffering from a crisis of self-doubt, exacerbated by his acquisition of the mysterious HERO dial and the superpowers that come with it. Very well written and drawn, with a eye towards the sharp contrasts between the real world and the metahuman world…
My Uncle Jeff [link] (Origin) has already gotten some positive write-ups for its story about the writer Damon Hurd's uncle. While I didn't hate the book, I did have some problems with how the story was told. For a 32-page graphic novel, it goes off on far too many tangents about Hurd's other relations (including a highly detailed family tree) that stop the story cold and take us far away from the title character, and don't really add a great deal. The book is strongest when it focuses on Jeff. The flashback sequence covering his teen and adult years is terrific and communicates more effectively than being told over and over again how wonderful he is, which Hurd also does. The story, involving the family's dilemma over what to do with their aging father, is a poignant one, and Jeff's emotions concerning not only his father, but how the family perceives Jeff's role, are very well done. However, I had to read the afterword to figure out that the ending was a dream sequence, which was completely unclear as presented. Pedro Camello's art communicates very effectively, especially with the use of body language and gestures. (Why was his name left off the cover?) This is a good book (though very pricey at $3.95), but its tendency to ramble and overindulge in minutiae keeps it from being a great one…
Spirit of the Amazon [link] (NW Studios) is a comic that, according to its press release, was second only to X-Men in sales in its native Brazil. The story concerns what appears to be a covert team of supernatural beings fighting corporate greed and protecting the ecosystem in general, and the Brazilian rainforest in specific. The art is all Lee/Liefeld early-90's-Image-style, meaning lots of splash pages and double-page spreads of over-muscular men, women with long, rubbery legs, and everyone with tiny little ankles. The bulk of the exposition about Brazilian history and legends are restricted to the narration, which is unfortunate; I would've preferred to have seen it integrated in the dialogue. It might have given me a better handle on the characters, who are ciphers for the most part. There are a bunch of them introduced here and very little is given in the way of their motivations. I couldn't find anyone to latch onto, good or bad, because there wasn't enough in the script that made me care about them. It was all plot with minimal characterization. It's commendable that the creative team wants to address a topic given insufficient coverage these days, but at the same time this needs to be an engaging read that leaves one wanting more, and I didn't get that here.
This past February 15, a worldwide peace rally was held in over 600 cities to protest what many believe will be a war waged against Iraq by the United States. Read my report about it on my message board.
Up next: a two-part conversation with one of my favorite people in all of comics, Patty Cake creator Scott Roberts. In this long-overdue interview, Scott talks about comics and animation and music and lots of stuff. You won't want to miss this. After that will be my report from this year's SPACE show from Columbus, Ohio. See you in 14.