Category archives: Comics

Professor Pelvis

Here’s Herb (the nephew) at the London Super Comic Con. Dressed as Iron Fist. Meeting Roy Thomas (creator of Iron Fist).

And here’s his latest opus. Issue 1 of Professor Pelvis.

How to go mad…

Prof. Foxhead, Issue 4. “How to Go Mad”. Hot off the presses from the 7-year-old nephew (Herb).

A Christmas Prey: Issue 2

And here’s (the concluding) issue 2…

A Christmas Prey: Issue 1

Here’s issue 1 of A Christmas Prey. Created (almost) entirely by my 7-year-old nephew, Herb. The only non-Herb creation is Professor Foxhead. The wheelchair-bound super-villain. I sketched that for him at Christmas. Nice to see him being worked into Herb’s ever-expanding comic universe.

Manto – Issue 2

Manto fans! Here be the second issue of my 7-year-old nephew Herb’s comic masterpiece. Say hello to Dog Team.

Issue one is here.

Manto The Sorcerer

My 7-year-old nephew Herb has started producing his own fumetti-style comic: Manto the Sorcerer. It’s all his own work. He gets up in the morning, photoshops the panels and the word balloons and bingo – Manto action.

Manto, as I understand it, is some sort of never-seen godlike character. It’s deliciously surreal stuff. Very proud of the little man. Reminds me of Fletcher Hanks. Enjoy.


Bunny Spaceships & Alien Balls: The Weird, Weird World of British Girls’ Comics

 

[Lots of people nattering about Jacqueline Rayner's recent Guardian piece on girls' comics, so thought I'd reprint the below, which I wrote for SFX #192.]

To nerdy young lads of the 70s/80s – those of us who bagged comics (before it became common practice), worshipped at the altar of Star Wars (before it became hopelessly tarnished and rubbish), and who spent long, lonely hours dreaming of escaping (by means of mystical portal, enchanted wardrobe, or interstellar space-craft) this dull and dreary lump of rock we call Earth – nothing was as endlessly mysterious or impossibly enigmatic as the world of girls.

It was (unlike, say, Tatooine – the sort of rough and tumble place we could all understand) a truly alien world. Peopled with superior beings whose hopes, fears, and desires were forever shielded from us. What did they think? What did they want? What did they like? Questions not easily answered, particularly if crippling shyness precluded actually strolling up and asking them.

Happily, for those of us who had a sister or two, there existed handy guides to decipher and unlock the infinite mysteries of the young female mind. Handy guides that came entertainingly packaged in comic book form (conveniently found casually discarded on female siblings’ bedroom floors). Guides with simple, two-syllable names like Bunty, Debbie, Mandy and Sandie. To junior male comic-aholics (on fixed budgets) they were guilty pleasures. Delicious and illicit digestifs to be savoured after the week’s consignment of Battle, Action, 2000 AD (etc.) had been greedily devoured.

So what did they tell us about our sisters (and by dubious extension all of girl/womankind)? Well, on the surface it appeared that their main preoccupations were (in no particular order) – ballet, ice-skating, boarding schools, hockey, horses and orphans. But, just below this surface, simmered another world. A fantastic world of haunted suburban homes (“The Girl Who Came Back!”), alien dogs (“Wonderwoofa”), and…er…techno-fascist dystopias (“The Last Buttercup”). Girls, it shockingly transpired, were interested in cool stuff. Like SF and horror. Like robots, ghosts, extraterrestrials and heroic strugglers against injustice. In other words, and despite all evidence to the contrary, it seemed that they were, well, quite like “us”.

No discussion of the fantastical in 70s/80s girls’ comics can ignore the significance of Fleetway/IPC’s unholy trio of Tammy (1971-1984), Misty (1978-1984) and Jinty (1974-1981).  Born during a time of transition, when (as comics scholar Jenni Scott puts it) “the shrinking of what had been a guaranteed market sparked off innovation and experimentation”, each title was consciously designed with its own focus and flavour. The pioneering Tammy – brainchild of Gerry “Rogue Trooper” Finley-Day – led the way in the misery stakes: with an endless supply of cruel and tear-jerking tales of waif-ish misery and anguish (its crowning glory being, perhaps, the hilariously brutal and sadistic “Slaves of War Orphan Farm”).

The memorably eerie Misty (launched by British comics legend Pat Mills) shifted the attention from domestic terrors to explicitly supernatural ones. It wore its dark heart proudly on its sleeve, with  memorable covers (all swirling mists and jagged, creeping shadows) capturing a compelling Gothic freakiness very rarely indulged in or equalled by boys’ publications (the brilliant, but short-lived, Scream! excepted). At a time when our weekly doses of “supernatural” drama centred chiefly on whether or not Billy Dane would find his haunted boots in time for Kenwood Technical’s next big match, Misty‘s raw tales of doom and horror seared young men to their cores. Example: Pat Mills’ own Moonchild – an unashamedly Carrie-esque narrative about the woes of telepathic misfit witch Rosemary Black and her ultimate triumph over the bullies that plagued her. Simultaneously uplifting and heart-stopping, it (and its ilk) left our copies of Roy of the Rovers, Victor, and Warlord looking rather limp, dumbly-cheery and simple-minded by comparison.

The final member of the Fleetway/IPC triple act was Jinty – a publication that became, as girls’ comic enthusiast Briony Coote confirms, “the flagship for SF in girls’ comics”. Launched in 1974 it was originally, Coote says, “closer to June and Tammy” in tone – i.e. full of “dark and emotional stories to make girls cry”. A tipping and turning point, she argues, was “Fran of the Floods” (1976). A prescient environmentalist tale of global warming and rising water levels, it proved hugely popular, pointing to a genuine (previously unacknowledged?) appetite for SF/futuristic fare among young female readers.

Compiling a comprehensive list of Jinty‘s many SF offerings would fill several pages (and induce catatonia in all but the hardest of hard-core readers), but a couple of stand-out stories deserve special mention. First up, “The Human Zoo”. A fresh, Planet of the Apes-esque, schoolgirl spin on that hoary old SF favourite, the…um…human zoo. While its lurid tag-line – “On the planet of two suns, they treat girls like animals!” – had more than a (questionable) whiff of 70s grind-house/exploitation cinema about it, the reality was, of course, slightly more innocent. Teenage twin girls are abducted by bulbous-headed, telepathic aliens and abused like dumb beasts before eventually proving themselves worthy by saving the aliens’ city. So all ends happily (though not without mildly critiquing humankind’s treatment of animals).

Then there was Pat Mills’ dystopian “Land of No Tears”. It told the tale of “lame Cassy Shaw” who’d been “transported through time to a cruel future world where she and other girls who had things wrong with them were treated like criminals”. Detailing the struggle between the flawless Alpha girls and the despised Gamma girls, “Land of no Tears” potently married Gattaca-esque fears of an artificially perfected society with schoolgirl anxiety about social exclusion (while chucking a bit of “crippled ballerina” melodrama into the mix too). Brief shout-outs should also go to “Almost Human” (super-powered alien girl from a doomed planet whose touch is deadly to all earth life-forms. Bummer!), “The Robot who Cried” (a Pinocchio-like tale about learning to love…and weep), and “Children of Edenford” (a cautionary, mini Stepford Wives, narrative about a lunatic attempt to produce super-students. Using drugs).

While Jinty may have been the dominant voice in comic SF for girls, its competitors also routinely served up fantastical goodies – sandwiching them between more established and maudlin ballerina/ice-skater/orphan staples. The incongruity of this mix accounted for a large part of the charm. You’d find yourself flicking through (D. C. Thomson’s) Bunty or Debbie, for example, speed-reading your way past standard fare like “The Four Marys”, or “Mary Brown’s Schooldays”, and up a SF tale would unexpectedly (and delightfully) pop.

A perennial favourite was the “Girl plus Magical Companion” story. The ingredients were simple. Take one ordinary schoolgirl. Add a comical/magical outsider companion (alien, android, monkey from Jupiter etc).  Mix thoroughly. Then sit back and watch the “fish out of water”/buddy-movie hilarity unfold. The majority of these tales were cosy, inoffensive, knockabout affairs – modestly designed to raise mild chuckles. The companions’ chief function (like many aliens before and after them) was to hold a mirror up to human vanities and foibles. They’d study us, comment on our primitiveness and expose us for the grasping, greedy fools that we were.

Unlike, however, more infamous (zero-tolerance) alien judges – i.e. Gort (Day the Earth Stood Still), or Doomlord (Eagle) – the alien observers in girls’ comics tended to opt for slapstick (rather than brutal and apocalyptic) punishments. They wouldn’t dream of sucking your brain dry, or reducing the Earth to a lifeless and smoking ruin, but they might (if you were really naughty) make your trousers fall down. Or cause you to topple amusingly into a lake.

A classic of the type was Bunty‘s “Belle of the Ball”, in which Belle Brown’s ball became imbued with “remarkable powers after being treated by some space travellers from the planet Orbis”. The Orbisians (being an interfering and bossy species) routinely used the ball to send Belle orders, forcing her to help them observe the oddities of human behaviour. This, almost inevitably, meant weekly run-ins with some of the Earth’s many boors and bullies, all of whom would suffer the gentlest of comeuppances at the “hands” of the ball. Such low-key conflict resolution was, needless to say, deeply unsatisfying if you were a blood-thirsty young male brute who’d been raised on a meaty comic diet of terminal machine-gun justice.

Happily, for lovers of conflict-fuelled drama, not all companions were this amiable and easy-going.  One of the most manipulative, pugnacious and downright weird girls’ comic sidekicks was one that came packaged in the cuddliest and cutest of forms. “The Flights of Flopear” (Bunty, again) was an unforgettably demented space operetta that paired earth-girl Tessa Worth with a bunny-shaped alien spaceship called Flopear. No, really.

At first glance, it appeared merely a charming interplanetary adventure where Tessa and Flopear filled their days by “planet-hopping from one strange world to the next”. So far, so delightful. But, as was often the case in the shadowy nether-world of Bunty et al., appearances were deceptive. Our friends were, in fact, “stranded in outer-space…trying to track down a piece of the elusive fire-crystal which would provide them with the power to make the long journey back to Earth”. Suddenly it didn’t sound like such a laugh…

To make matters worse, Flopear himself was dangerously unstable. His behaviour – wildly erratic. His mood swings – violent and abrupt. A one-bunny good-cop/mad-cop routine. One minute he’d be trying to console young Tessa (alone as she was, in the cold, vast depths of space) with a spot of in-flight entertainment (Space Invaders, anyone?!). The next he’d be savagely berating her for being a brattish ingrate (who failed to appreciate all he was doing on her behalf). The whole thing felt unsettlingly reminiscent of an abductor/abductee relationship. Like the cartoon adventures of  Wolfgang Priklopil and Natascha Kampusch…in space (if Prikopil had, you know, been a giant alien bunny).

If, by now, you’re leaping about and wildly exclaiming “Where can I read these strange and marvellous tales?!”, then the news is, alas, mostly bad. While the burgeoning nostalgia reprint market has seen fit to reacquaint audiences with older (more traditional) girls’ publications like June, Schoolfriend and Girl, most of the titles mentioned above remain unfortunately and unfairly neglected. More disappointingly still, a planned Best of Misty volume (from Titan books) has, it would appear, been indefinitely postponed (another victim of a bleak economic landscape).

All of which leaves (thriving) online networks and communities of enthusiasts/collectors as the chief guardians of these fragile pop-cultural memories. Fragile memories of mystical balls, brutal nightmarish futures, and disturbed space-rabbits. Memories that might otherwise fade. Memories of the strange forces that shaped (or warped) the imaginations of a whole generation of girls (and, of course, their brothers).

—–

Little extra bits…on some freaky tales of terror that scarred us for life.

“Slave of the Mirror” (Jinty): Young Mia Blake finds a possessed mirror in her sister’s guest-house attic. The horrid, leering face it reflects back at her crushes her will and commands her to do evil. Canny young readers note a handy excuse for juvenile delinquency.

“Picture, Picture on the Wall” (Debbie): Young Mandy Thomas lives in Grimeford – a town blighted by urban decay. Tries to brighten up town by painting a cheery mural on an old warehouse wall. Mural wrecked by graffiti-loving bully. Mysterious stranger arrives and repaints wall with demonic figures who drag bully into mural where she’s trapped (frozen and tormented) forever!

“Doom Warning” (Diana): Ambitious young journalist Claire Rossiter discovers aged gypsy woman who can predict future disasters (using a mystical billboard). Armed with this knowledge the young journo scoops her rivals, becoming a sensation. But fame corrupts. She turns wicked and cruel. Threatening the gypsy and abusing her colleagues. Old woman gets bloody revenge by fooling her into boarding a tube train that crashes, killing hundreds. Rossiter’s death becomes the final grim headline.

Doomlord: Master of Life, Bringer of Death, Lover of Coronation St…

[Hey ho. Apropos of nothing much, just thought I'd reprint the Doomlord piece I wrote for SFX #200. Enjoy, earthling scum.]

March 27th, 1982. Midnight. A fireball flashes across the skies over “the sleeping town of Cranbridge”. In nearby “Gallows Wood“ it crashes to Earth. The sole witnesses – P.C. Bob Murton and Cranbridge Argus reporter Howard Harvey – rush to the scene. Out of the Stygian gloom, a terrible figure (clad in ornate, ceremonial robes) emerges. A hideous skull-like face is seen. The creature begins to speak. “I AM DOOMLORD… SERVANT OF NOX… MASTER OF LIFE… BRINGER OF DEATH!”.

Thus began the dread (and often-times hilarious) adventures of the “Doomlords“. “Servitors” of the “unnatural world of Nox”, whose “ageless duty [was] to scour the cosmos” and “seek out worlds in danger from the ravages of their own inhabitants”. Yes, fellow earthlings, they were here to judge us…and (*gulp*) they didn’t much like what they saw.

The site/occasion of this startling debut appearance was the relaunch of classic British boys’ comic the Eagle – Issue No. 1 of which came with a free “Space Spinner” (a pound-shop Frisbee) and a cover that intriguingly promised “Dynamic Stories – Told in Exciting Photos and Pics!”. Photos? Over to Eagle editor David Hunt: “When the New Eagle was given the green light…all of us concerned in its development felt it needed an added ingredient to make it different from other mainstream comics of the time”.

This “added ingredient” turned out, controversially, to be the use of “photo-strip” – black and white photographs, speech bubbles and some very basic effects – in place of conventional illustration for the majority of the comic’s stories. A bold decision arrived at largely because, Hunt explains, photo-strip had been “proving…a big plus for the teenage girls’ market”.

Though reader reaction was far from unanimously favourable (with letters as early as issue 10 begging for a return to “comic-strip drawings” and “cartoon versions”), Doomlord’s writers and creators – John Wagner and Alan Grant (whose glittering CVs encompass Judge Dredd, Strontium Dog, Robo-Hunter etc.) – retain nothing but the fondest of memories of the experiment.

“Photo-strip gave the story an off-key, weird feel”, Grant recalls. “I loved it. I remember being shown the photo-art for the very first episode, in Dave Hunt’s office. It was so different from what we were used to…we were blown away by the quality”. Off-key and weird it most certainly was, but there were inherent (fairly obvious) limitations. “Our main consideration”, says Wagner, “had to be what could be achieved with a camera, actors and minimal budget and still look good”. What this meant, in practice, was that alien “invasion“ narratives were fine and dandy as long as there was “just one alien who happens to spend most of his time in typical, run-of-the-mill British settings”.

Yet, arguably, it was this very necessary grounding of the narrative in the banal and the everyday that made Doomlord so distinctive and memorable (unsettling and blackly comic in equal measure). Unlike ostensible flagship story Dan Dare (the adventures of a really boring good guy…from a different age”, according to John Wagner) Doomlord was, at least initially, neither space-operatic nor futuristic. It felt real and immediate, like it could be happening in your hometown. On your street. Hell, if you lived anywhere near King’s Reach Tower (IPC’s iconic London HQ) in the early 80s, then it probably was happening on your street.

“The main characters were played by hired actors and several leading actors’ agencies were used”, David Hunt explains. “Many of the guys selected were extremely grateful for the money photo-strip afforded them because of the vagaries and uncertainties of the acting profession“. The performers chosen may not always have been, as John Wagner recalls, of the “matinee idol” variety -  “[They] specialised in odd-looking people – I think it was called ‘The Ugly Agency’” – but this absence of glamour only added to Doomlord’s weird charm.

The first of these low-budget, solitary (“Ugly Agency“) aliens was Doomlord Zyn. A relatively conventional villain who routinely sucked dry the brains of total innocents (absorbing their knowledge and hijacking their physical forms) before disintegrating their corpses with his multi-purpose energiser ring. All this in the name of a research project whose goal was to test the fitness (or otherwise) of humankind as stewards of the Earth. The rather limp protagonist/hero of the piece was crusading journalist Howard Harvey – out to expose Zyn’s true identity and intentions (ultimately, “the annihilation of the whole human race“) to superiors and authorities who viewed him as a lunatic crank.

Harvey eventually succeeded in preventing Zyn from carrying out his apocalyptic sentence, but only at the cost of his own life (and professional reputation). Zyn’s disappearance did not, however, go unnoticed or uncommented on. Back on Nox, the “Dread Council” (three cowled figures standing round a table in a tin-foil-walled room) were preparing to send a replacement Earth-ward. Enter Doomlord Vek – he who would become, right through to the strip’s abrupt end in 1989, the definitive Doomlord.

Vek’s initial (unimpressed) take on the human race was not substantially different from that of Zyn (“Their petty ways. Their primitive emotions. A  race of buffoons“),  but he soon moderated this Noxian disdain for human weakness and idiocy. A key development in this regard was his taking up of residency in the “Bradfield” boarding house of Mrs. Souster and her two sons – disguised as “commercial traveller” Eric Plumrose, a hapless passer-by he’d mercilessly zapped.

Exposed to the unpretentious, homely decency of the Sousters, Vek would come to a realisation that had eluded his predecessor. One that would inexorably shift the focus of his character from fearsome “bringer of death” to quasi-heroic “protector of Earth”. Vek’s simple epiphany was, Alan Grant explains, that “people are, generally, quite likeable, especially as individuals and families”. And that “it’s only when humans gather in abnormal groups – a clutch of politicians, a bevy of military planners – that they start to become insane in their thoughts and deeds”.

Not that this meant, in the short term at least, that Vek refrained from all that jolly brain-sucking and body-disintegrating. He didn’t  – carrying on much as before, endlessly repeating the Noxian mantra (or excuse) that “the fate of the individual is unimportant when the survival of the species is at stake”. This rather cavalier attitude to human life initially presented certain challenges in selling Vek as protagonist and “hero”. “I suppose we hit on the formula the first time it became necessary for him to kill”, says Wagner. “Won’t he look bad? No. To a Noxian our little lives were about as valuable as a blade of grass – the readers understood that and didn’t hold it against him”.

Unlike more conventional alien “invaders”, the Serivtors of Nox were neither here to a) colonise the planet, or b) enslave (and eat!) us. Equally, they had little interest in the threat a warlike species on the verge of space travel posed to the galaxy at large. Their chief concern was for the welfare of planets themselves - as ecosystems, as entities. The cataclysmic plague Zyn had planned to release would, for example, have targeted human beings only. Blameless “lower species” would have been spared: allowed to live on in an Eden untainted by man.

Under Vek’s watch Doomlord would flower into something approaching a radical  environmentalist/socialist fantasy – with the burgeoning ecology movement an acknowledged influence (Alan Grant: “It was on TV and in the papers constantly, a sort of background noise for everybody”). Polluting captains of industry would be forced (through hypnosis or plain old violence) to mend their ways. Corrupt judges and MPs were shamed and exposed. Vek even had his own TV show to promote and propel major societal changes (a slightly more extreme – but less crazy – forerunner to Noel’s HQ).

Vek’s most dramatic interventions centred around the campaign for nuclear disarmament – a utopian cause he pursued with no little vigour. Impressive results were achieved through such hard-core, zero-tolerance tactics as: deliberately launching an American ICBM at the USSR (to bring the super-powers to their senses) and completely wiping out the small market town of “Prattlewell” (to demonstrate his awesome “Don’t mess with me, Earthlings!” power).

As the years rolled by, however, and Vek grew further into his role as Earth guardian (saving the planet from countless perils/invasions), something of the delicious amorality of the early stories was lost. Vek had, basically, become too damn nice. A Superman-esque hero who even had his own “Fortress of Solitude” (sorry, “Isolarium”) on the moon. A worthy antagonist was badly needed. Someone who embodied the blackly-comic brutal essence of the old days. Enter Enok – Vek‘s deeply troubled offspring and one of the nastiest, angriest and most memorably demented “bad son” characters in comic history.

Born from a fusion of a human egg and Vek’s Noxian blood (and born out of Vek’s desire to experience the human feeling of familial love), Enok soon became an extreme poster-child for moody, pissed-off adolescence. Like Spock his mixed (alien/human) heritage would cause him to feel confused and conflicted. Unlike Spock, he responded to this confusion by murdering his own father, attempting to kill a school bully (who had unwisely harassed him), and creating a doomsday device to melt the polar ice-caps and flood the earth.

Oh, and that was just for starters. In an alternative dimension he became tyrannical overlord of the entire planet. Ruling with a seriously iron fist from his “Palace of Torture” in Trafalgar Square (where he even mercilessly tormented Vek’s beloved Mrs. Souster). He did, in fairness, eventually turn out a fairly well-balanced adult – but only after Daddy Vek had marooned him on an asteroid in the depths of space (a no-nonsense Noxian take on sending someone to their room).

By this stage (late 1986), the photo-strip experiment had long since been abandoned – having proved “extremely labour intensive” and “impractical” according to David Hunt. Though veteran artist Eric Bradbury (a master of shadow and texture) produced some strikingly beautiful work for the strip, John Wagner, for one, mourned photo-strip’s passing: “Doomlord was special in photo-strip – afterwards [though still good!] it was just another story“.

Bradbury’s glorious black and white art may have “liberated” the story – allowing it to become far more epic in scope – but it’s probably the incongruous kitchen-sink/SF charm of the early days that people remember most (and most affectionately). Images of a rubber-masked Doomlord Vek perched on the couch in the Souster’s chintzy front room (watching his favourite Earth show…Coronation Street) are potent and evocative ones for readers of a certain vintage. At a time when the (tedious) default mode for superhero stories is “dark”, gritty, and ever-so-serious (thanks a lot, Frank Miller) – we could do worse than pray for the resurrection of a Noxian who‘d routinely utter immortal lines like: “They are my….friends! They want me to go to Butlin’s with them – you must not hurt them!”.

Here to doom us, he came to love us…and we him. Happily forgiving the often brutal and murderous manifestations of his “love”. Why? Because maybe (just maybe) readers secretly felt that the Doomlords were right. That even if, in John Wagner‘s words, “some of us could be likeable on an individual basis…humanity, as a whole, had it coming”.

——-

Little extra bits…

Coronation Street

Fittingly – given the story’s zero-budget, kitchen-sink charm – Doomlord Vek’s favourite terrestrial TV show was Coronation Street. Earth cynics may have regarded it as just another soap, but for Vek it was: “A most excellent human drama!“.

Rarely missing an episode, and often eulogising its importance (“Ah, Coronation Street! All Human Life is Here! The Species in Microcosm!”), Vek’s love of “Corrie” was referenced frequently. Rarely more entertainingly than when, as he dashed out to battle a reborn Zyn for the fate of humankind, Mrs. Souster warned “Don’t be long now. Coronation Street is just about to start!”.

The Doomlord Mask

The relaunched Eagle’s most iconic image? Not the Mekon’s bulbous head – nor the arched eyebrows of Dan Dare – but (clearly) the fanged/skeletal rubber-masked face of Doomlord.

Though the mask may not have afforded the actor underneath much opportunity to emote, its unsettlingly “alien” blankness burned itself into the brains of sensitive readers (causing untold sleepless nights). Its designer remains unknown (perhaps  unknowable) as it was bought, along with the glitzy robes and deadly energiser ring, “off the peg” in a London theatrical outfitters. David Hunt, John Wagner, Alan Grant and (Group Editor) Barrie Tomlinson appear to be the responsible/guilty parties.

 

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