In the early 1980s, I had drifted somewhat from the true faith of the superhero, lured by the bright lights and flashy visuals of big screen science fiction. But I could never stay away for too long and Marvel UK lured me back into the fold with a raft of new titles. In an effort to snatch back some of the market from its rivals, Marvel UK started publishing new titles on cheaper paper and in a style more in keeping with the traditional British boy’s comic; some were really obvious – Forces in Combatwas an attempt to emulate Battle and Future Tense was a grab at the sci-fi market dominated by 2000ad. But Marvel UK had not entirely ditched their heritage; the two biggest hitters on the superhero front combined in Spider-Man and Hulk Weekly (which cannily included Spider Woman and She-Hulk as back up strips) and an adventure title Valour contained Thor and Doctor Strange alongside its more fantasy oriented strips.
My favourite at the time (though it didn’t run for very long) was Marvel Team-Up, the first few issues of which came with some splendid stickers. Although Spider-Man was the star of this title, the strips introduced me to a lot of more obscure characters with whom he teamed up, including the original Ms Marvel. It’s worth noting that at the turn of the 80s, Marvel comics in the US were really increasing their roster of female superheroes, partly in a commercial attempt to cash-in on the waning girl’s comic market but also very much to move with the times. Where once you had the token female team member – the Wasp, Marvel Girl, Invisible Girl etc – you now had new characters who either had their own titles or were prominent players in the Marvel universe – Ms Marvel, Dazzler, She-Hulk, Spider-Woman and the X-Men’s Phoenix and Storm.
Although her adventures are now regarded as campy nonsense, I was a big fan of Dazzler, the disco-themed roller-skating superhero with Farrah Fawcett hair, who couldn’t have been more early 80s if she been married to one of the Bee Gees. Dazzler was a back-up strip in Captain America Weekly and I picked up a few issues of her US title at the little indoor market stall. As I mentioned in Part 1, the gender divide in superhero comics didn’t feel so prominent when I was young. Sure, the traditional British comics were still firmly divided between Boy’s Comics and Girl’s Comics, but whereas I wouldn’t have dreamed of buying a copy of Bunty, I was quite happy to pick up an American edition of Dazzler, Spider Woman or even Wonder Woman. Any divide today is all marketing, of course; with the ‘Princesses for girls’ and ‘Superheroes for boys’ angle taking some breaking free of.
Always keen to experiment with format, Marvel UK started releasing their Pocket Books in the early 80s. These were A5-sized monthly editions, often reprinting some of the earliest outings for their most popular characters. Very affordable at a mere 15p, I remember eagerly buying Spider-Man, The Fantastic Four and a revival of The Titans, featuring Thor, Captain America and Iron Man. This was the first time I’d seen some of these 60s stories and I remember being surprised to see Thor as ‘lame’ Dr Donald Blake, his alter-ego having been substantially sidelined over the years. As well as the superhero titles, there was sci-fi title Star Heroes (which I bought), horror title Chiller (which I didn’t) and smoochy swoonfest Young Romance (which I definitely didn’t). Later came Classic Comics and I still have my copies of H.G. Wells’ The Food of the Gods and Wilkie Collins’ The Moonstone, which have the last half dozen pages transposed due to a printing error. I wonder if they’re worth anything…?
In the early 80s, someone finally realised that there might be money to be made from the reprinting of DC Comics in the UK with The Superheroes Monthly debuting in 1981. I only remember buying a few issues of this magazine, which focussed mainly on the big three of Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman, and it never really grabbed me the same way as the Marvel titles. The Superman movie series was still going great guns on the big screen and I remember one of the issues of The Superheroes Monthly I bought having an extraordinary painted cover depicting a scene from the Superman II. Whereas the British reprints of DC Comics might not have grabbed me, I was probably buying more American DC titles than ever before, with interesting new titles like Blue Devil, about a Hollywood stuntman who becomes stuck in an animatronic movie costume, really grabbing my attention.
But my favourite imported DC title of the time and the one I bought most copies of, was definitely Dial ‘H’ for Hero. An ‘interactive’ comic way ahead of its time, Dial ‘H’ for Hero was the story of teenagers Chris King and Vicki Grant, who discover magical dials that allow them to ‘dial up’ the identity of numerous different superheroes. The title was based on a DC property from the 60s, the difference being that the superheroes in the 80s magazine were all created and sent in by readers! This excited me immensely at the time, especially when I saw that one of the heroes was created by someone in Scotland and I realised that it wasn’t impossibly for me to submit my own superhero to Dial ‘H’ for Hero. Sadly, as with so many things, I never got round to it. DC were experimenting with lots of different ideas at this time and I was also a big fan of two of their comedy titles, Captain Carrot and the Zoo Crew and ‘Mazing Man.
I rediscovered my love of The Hulk in around 1982 when I picked up a copy of The Incredible Hulk Weekly in a remaindered bin. I distinctly remember thinking ‘this is a comic I would like to read every week’ and telling my Mother as much. It became a gateway drug to Spider-Man Weekly (originally Super Spider-Man TV Comic, even though the TV show had been cancelled some years earlier). Marvel UK had moved on from the newsprint editions to a new, more attractive style with glossy cover and some colour pages. They also had a glossy centre spread, which was often used to promote the latest movie releases – the two that I remember well being Tron and Blade Runner. Some of the stories from this era really stuck with me, particularly the Spider-Man stories with the Hobgoblin and the one where The Scorpion becomes an actual giant scorpion! Both Hulk and Spidey would also be prominent players in the ‘comics’ event’ Secret Wars, which I followed in the fortnightly Marvel Superheroes Secret Wars UK publication.
Marvel UK’s Hulk Comic had been being quietly revolutionary from the late 70s by introducing more home-grown talent, including the debut of Tim Quinn and Dicky Howett with Hulk the Menace, combining the Marvel superhero with the Beano star Dennis the Menace. Tim and Dicky’s irreverent brand of humour would be omnipresent across the early-80s Marvel UK titles, with such strips as The Fantastic 400 and Jet Lagg – The Fastest Slowcoach in the World poking fun at not only Marvel superheroes but also the long-established institution of British comics. I loved Tim and Dicky’s work, not only in the superhero publications but also Forces in Combat, Future Tense and their long-established association with Doctor Who Magazine. Sadly, it was a superhero spoof The Nice Avengers in the Marvel Special Channel 33⅓ – The Children’s Comic TV Station that put an end to their association with the Marvel UK weeklies (you can read about it here).
Hulk Comic also debuted more serious home-grown fare, such as the noir-ish Night Raven and the epic fantasy Black Knight. The character of the Black Knight had been kicking around the Marvel universe since he appeared in The Avengers in the 60s, but he was never taken terribly seriously. In his 52-episode Hulk Comic opus by Steve Parkhouse, Paul Neary and John Stokes, The Black Knight is finally given the treatment he deserves in a majestic Tolkein-esque saga that I personally think is the best thing Marvel UK ever produced. And just when you think that this epic adventure couldn’t get any better – they reintroduce Captain Britain, whom everyone thought was gone for good after his weekly comic folded!
The success of original material in Hulk Comic led, directly or indirectly, to the ascent of Marvel Superheroes monthly as a showcase for new British talents. Launched at the tail-end of the 70s, Marvel Superheroes was aimed at an older teenage audience and as it developed, it cherry-picked the more interesting publications from Marvel US for reprint, including particularly strong runs of The Avengers and X-Men, Iron Fist, The Champions, Ms Marvel and – most significantly – the return of Captain Britain! I was delighted to see Captain Britain back and loved the fact that his relaunch seemed to share direct continuity with the Black Knight strip. Although it was originally written by Dave Thorpe, the scriptwriting duties were soon handed over to a hungry young writer called Alan Moore (I wonder whatever happened to him).
Marvel Superheroes led to other titles aimed at a slightly older audience, notably Savage Action and The Daredevils (revolving around Frank Miller’s run on Daredevil), all of which merged into one another in some form (I forget, it was a long time ago and there was SO much merging going on). As well as featuring original UK material, later issues of Marvel Superheroes also dabbled with comics fandom, reviewing fanzines and small-press publications. I distinctly remember seeing a review of an early issue of Viz Comic, then little more than a photocopied pamphlet without proper national distribution. The original material produced by Marvel UK in the early 80s is often glossed over in the history of comics, but it launched the careers of people like Alan Moore, Alan Davis, John Stokes and David Lloyd; without them there would arguably have been no Warrior magazine, no V for Vendetta and eventually no Watchmen.
In my mid-teens, there was a definite feeling that a lot of comics were becoming more mature. I remember buying the first issue of Warrior whilst on holiday aged 12 and being sort of frightened by the maturity of it; feeling that I was reading something that I really shouldn’t be and would probably get wrong if my parents found out. I threw away my first copy of Warrior and never bought another, which I now really regret, but as I grew older, I started to become more interested in the developing comics’ scene. My best friend loaned me his copy of Watchmen and recommended that I read it, which I did. It was challenging, fascinating, revolutionary and just a little bit scary because I knew that the superheroes I grew up with were no longer infallible and the world became a slightly scarier place at that moment because of it.
I’d been reading 2000ad on and off (mostly on) since it was first launched and in 1987 they made a rare foray into the world of superheroes with Zenith. The strip, which ran for several years, is the story of young Robert McDowell, the son of two members of a 1960s superhero team called Cloud 9; he has inherited their superpowers, but he is more interested in promoting his pop career than battling super-powered Neo-Nazis and supernatural entities from another dimension. Written by Grant Morrison, it’s a deeply satirical look at British society, politics and class and was fairly strong meat for 2000ad. I remember really enjoying it at the time, but becoming less interested when it went all Acid House and started bringing in characters from 50s and 60s British comics that I’d never heard of. Unfortunately, 2000ad was on a slow downward curve and would hit its absolute nadir in the 90s.
Strips like Watchmen and Zenith were terrific, exploring new angles of the superhero that had never even been considered before, but their legacy appears to be both a good and a bad thing to me. It’s certainly not the fault of Alan Moore and Grant Morrison, but both comic books and the cinema are still trading off their revolutionary ideas 30 years later. You can see the stamp of Watchmen all over modern superhero TV and cinema, particularly Zack Snyder’s DCU, and when I recently watched Jupiter’s Legacy on Netflix, I couldn’t help thinking that the idea of second generation superheroes turning against the ideals of their parents was straight out of Zenith. It would have seemed unthinkable in the 80s, but these radical ideas have become, at best, the norm and, at worst, a cliché. To move forward, I think that the superhero genre really needs to come up with something altogether new and original.
On the big screen in the 80s, the Superman series had left us not with a bang but with a whimper, when cut-price empire-builders Canon Films bought the franchise from Universal and gave us 1987’s Superman IV: The Quest for Peace. The fact that I never even saw it on the cinema says it all! The once all-conquering Superman films limped over the finishing line and almost everyone had lost interest. For those of us who’d grown up with the Christopher Reeve version of the Man of Steel, it was terribly saddening when the actor was paralysed from the neck down following a riding accident in the mid-90s and would never play the part again. After Superman IV: The Quest for Peace, it felt like the era of superheroes on the big screen had come to an end… but little could we know, something new was just around the corner.
Batman had enjoyed something of a comics’ renaissance in the 80s. Although the 70s strip had moved on substantially, the public image of the caped Crusader was still that of campy Adam West from the 60s TV series, but all that changed in 1986, when Frank Miller wrote and co-illustrated The Dark Knight Returns, a 4-issue comic book that returned Batman to the noir-ish style of the original 1930s comic strip. To this day I’ve never read The Dark Knight Returns, but I did read Batman: The Killing Joke, published 2 years later and created by the very British team of writer Alan Moore and illustrators Brian Bolland and John Higgins. It’s an incredibly dark and violent piece exploring the twisted relationship between the Joker and Batman.
Hollywood was paying attention to events in Gotham City and both The Dark Knight Returns and The Killing Joke were heavily influential in the development of Tim Burton’s 1989 movie titled simply Batman. My regular movie-going companion Ben and I had both enjoyed Burton’s previous movie Beetlejuice and although the casting of Michael Keaton (then predominantly known as a comedy actor) as Bruce Wayne/Batman raised a few eyebrows, we were really looking forward to it. I remember seeing the trailer on the big screen and the shutters slid back to reveal it in all its widescreen splendour. It’s a hell of a trailer – no music, just whooshing Dolby sound, deafening explosions and endlessly quotable one-liners. Most noticeably though, it looked nothing at all like the 60s TV series.
Ben and I stood in a colossal queue at the recently-opened multiplex cinema at the Gateshead Metro Centre to see Batman and it didn’t disappoint. Unfortunately, as with those ground-breaking comics I mentioned earlier, it left a legacy that seemed intent on treading the same ground. In the 90s and right up until today, Hollywood seemed intent on recapturing the spark of Tim Burton’s Batman and has never really succeeded. It was lightning in a bottle, a product of its time, and it was only when Bryan Singer, Christopher Nolan and Marvel Studios came along and started doing things in different ways that the superhero movie became viable again. But the 80s relaunched Batman on the big screen and for all he may have stumbled along the way, he’s still DC’s biggest box office draw because of it.
So, the 80s ended. I was 20 years old and my childhood was long behind me. It had been a traumatic decade, not one that I hold with the same sort of nostalgia that a lot of people do, but my childhood friends the Superheroes had always been there to support me. Sure, I realised that they weren’t perfect – but then who is? The great thing about these characters is that if you don’t like what the creators are doing with them now, you can just go back and read their old adventures. Trying to apply continuity is just folly; I mean, Clark Kent has been kicking around Metropolis for 83 years now, by all rights he should be about 120. You can go down the alternative universe route, but that way lies madness. No, I’m quite happy to occasionally go back and visit my friends from the 70s and 80s without worrying about the intervening decades. They’ve always been there for me and they always will be.