Monday, 27 February 2017

Sector 13 and the Attack of the Giant Worms.

Friday 24th February was the last of the month and so was time for the regular meeting of Sector House 13 in Belfast.  A group of 2000AD fans, creators and cos-players, they meet in a local bar once a month to chat, drink and generally have a good time.  I joined the group late last year and a more welcoming and friendly crowd you could not hope to meet.

An early cover rough of Prog 2018
Often among their number is Ryan Brown, one of the most sought after cover artists in comics today. Ryan is a 'digital painter' whose work has been seen on games and albums but most frequently on comic book covers.   His work has been featured on books by Marvel, DC, Dark Horse and IDW. 

Particular highlights for me have been his Dredd and Mars Attacks covers for IDW and his depictions of classic horror scenes for Creepy and other comics. 

Talking to Ryan can be an education for any would-be comic artist or writer.  His understanding of layout and storytelling is astounding and his ability to analyse a comic page remarkable.  More importantly he is able to communicate his knowledge to others in a way that is simple and yet sophisticated.  I know that I've looked at comics slightly differently since being involved in a couple of conversations on the subject. 

His generosity in sharing his experience and knowledge with a few of the Sector 13 crowd has been much appreciated as he has helped with their own writing or artistic endeavours and especially with an ongoing group project that I'm sure will be made public in the near future.

Some of Ryan's most recent work has been for 2000AD including covers to Prog. 2018 where he provides a stunning illustration for the John Burns' strip The Order.  For members of the Sector House 13 group the cover is one they are not likely to forget. 

Handsome Devils!
Among the peasants fleeing from the horrific fang-toothed Wyrm are two of their own.  White-haired Laurence McKenna, one of the driving forces behind the group, can be seen screaming as he sprints after comic writer, Mark McMann.  Mark who is already in the grasp of one of the Wyrm's tentacle, looks back in terror.   

The likenesses are excellent, although I've never seen either Laurence or Mark dressed in quite the same mode of dress.  In addition to providing me with the final image, minus all text, Ryan has also been kind enough to let Splank! have an early cover rough and some of the reference material he used for Laurence and Mark.

Both big 2000AD fans, you can imagine just how exciting this is for the two guys. Even if they do not look like they are going to live long in the illustration. 

Any comics fans, particularly fans of 2000AD, from Belfast or the surrounding area should check out the Sector 13 Facebook Presence, and come join us on one of our evenings out.  We are usually in the Parlour bar in Belfast from about 7:30 on the last Friday in the month, but the details are always published on Facebook.

For more information on Ryan and a gallery of some of his work check out his Art of Ryan Brown web-site here.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

The Rise and Fall of Sports Strips in 2000 AD Part 3, Who Plagarised Roger Rabbit?

As I get older I notice how few truly original ideas there are in movies, books, music and comics.  Each generation of creators builds on the work of their predecessors, takes ideas and techniques and adds their own touches.  It’s also surprising how often you discover that ideas you thought of as revolutionary when you first encountered them are themselves rehashed from earlier generations of artists.

This was especially true in the world of British comics.  Indeed the revitalisation of the British Comics scene in the late seventies owed a huge amount to the wholesale adoption of ideas and concepts from popular culture, most notably from the cinema.   This applied especially to the titles influenced by Pat Mills and John Wagner at IPC.

The Coburn inspired Major Eazy
Battle, for example, took the trend for more realistic war films and the popularity of anti-heroes in the mould of James Coburn or Clint Eastwood as its inspiration.  But adapted and developed those ideas to give us something new and ultimately very special. 

Action picked up every cinema trend the guys could find from Rollerball to Jaws and even latched onto the then-current popularity of gang related pulp fiction featuring various types of Yob from Skinhead to Hells' Angels.  The girl's comic, Misty would later owe a huge amount to the fiction of Stephen King, films like Carrie and, I suspect, the Italian horror movie scene.

But while Mills and Wagner may have 'borrowed' ideas they always added their own slant, developed the concepts, often adding what could be described as a little bit of magic.  That magic made the 'borrowing' forgivable.  It even added a little to the enjoyment as the reader could feel slightly smug when they spotted the influences.   An outright steal of a story from another medium was actually very rare.  But it did happen.

In the last post in this series, I left 2000 AD as it had just survived an almost existential crisis.  Difficulties with management over excessive violence in the Inferno Strip, along with disappointing sales had led to a decision to merge 2000 AD with its stablemate Starlord.  While Starlord had been the better selling of the two comics at the time, 2000 AD was cheaper to produce and was better known by newsagents and so it was the title that Head of IPC Youth Group, John Saunders decided should survive.
The Classic 2000AD line-up

Indeed it not only survived, it thrived.  The first post-merger issue, Prog 86, cover dated 14 Oct 1978, featured possibly the strongest line-up of strips yet to appear in the comic.  Strontium Dog by T B Grover (John Wagner) and Carlos Ezquerra along with the Pat Mills and Dave Gibbons Ro-Busters strips came in from Starlord and joined Dredd by John Howard (Wagner again) and Brian Bolland with another visceral and violent Belardinelli strip in the form of the return of Flesh, the popular Dinosaur wrangling story, finishing off a very strong line-up.

Artistically this set the standard for progs to come.   Bolland and Gibbons, with their clear lines and American influenced figures and layouts, played well against the more stylistic and fluid images of Belardinelli and Ezquerra.  The stories were uniformly excellent, varied and more clearly science fiction tales than some of the stories which had gone before...

Just as important, for the future, was the arrival of Steve MacManus from Battle, first as deputy and then as editor following the resignation of Kelvin Gosnall.  2000AD had found a winning formula. There was no room for a traditional sports strip at the time, indeed the closest we would see in the next couple of years was Blackhawk, a story transplanted from Tornado when 2000AD absorbed that title with Prog 127.

Belardinelli at his weird best.
A Roman Gladiator transported into space, Blackhawk was required to fight alien opponents, with his adventures drawn, once again, by Belardinelli.  The strip is mainly notable for being one of the first written by Alan Grant, but I'm not sure that it really qualifies as a sports strip, or, indeed, that it belonged in a Science Fiction comic like 2000 AD.

It would be September 1980 (Prog 178) before the next true sports strip would appear in 2000 AD.  A Tom Tully idea, The Mean Arena, was described like this in the first episode.

Street Football:  The world’s most popular sport.  A mixture of Rugby, American Football, and Soccer.  It is played in specially evacuated towns and cities with each side stalking the other through the streets and buildings therein.

In reality, there was very little in the set-up that came from either Soccer or Rugby, this was American Football played on the streets.  And the set-up of the game was excellent, brilliantly conceived and with huge dramatic potential.  The game was easy to understand, each player had a clearly defined role and a sensible reason to be visually distinctive.  It also had the potential for gimmicky team uniform designs and for the costumes to be as visually exciting as Dredd or Strontium Dog.  In other words this was possibly the best set-up of any future sports strip seen in British comics. 

In Tom Tully, 2000AD had the perfect writer for Mean Arena.   He had brought the idea to Steve MacManus and had huge experience with sports stories.  Tully was a real professional, he appears to have had a different attitude to many of the other writers and very clear career priorities, Tully was in it for the cash.   In an interview on the "Everything comes Back to 2000AD" podcast, Pat Mills recalls that Tully used to introduce himself to other writers as "Tom Tully, I make more money than the Prime Minister" and that he once proudly boasted to Mills that he could write two stories a day.

Tully was a throwback to the old days of British comics, but he was also skilful enough to move his writing with the times.  He'd written popular stories for Action and Battle and his strips in 2000AD had held their own against the writing of Mills and Wagner.  But he had a special skill that must have been important in the decision to accept his Mean Arena idea.   Tully had been a main writer on Roy of the Rovers and had demonstrated the ability to write strips which kept a story interesting with very little behind it.

Mean Arena started well enough, the first episode appearing in Prog 178.  This was the first time 2000AD had featured a free gift, a badge attached to the cover, since Prog 3.  The issue also featured the start of the second story by Mills and O'Neill in the series that would become Nemesis the Warlock and the debut of the Wagner/Grant writing team on Strontium Dog.  The issue was completed with one of the closing episodes of the Judge Child saga featuring and another strip allowing Belardnelli free reign to show his abilities, Meltdown Man.
The Rest of the line-up of Prog 178.

It was going to be difficult to stand out in line-up like that but the first episode looked good.  Steve McManus has said that nobody wanted to draw the strip and that Steve Dillon had done a lot of design work on the costumes etc.  Art in the early episodes was by John Richardson, who would become known for his work on slightly risqué strips like Amanda for the Sun newspaper or the less subtle, Pussy Muldoon for D. C Thompson's Celebrity magazine.  The first episode, in particular, looked good, interesting layouts and a great use of dark backgrounds meant that it still managed to hold its own against the other strips.  Indeed for a time it was the reason I read 2000AD.

The writing was well up to Tully's usual standards.  As he moved his story of Slaters Slayers and their star player Matt Talon from game to game.  A sub-plot, where Talon investigated corruption in the game and the death of his younger brother moved slowly through the episodes.  

Steve Dillon, too late to save the first series.

Clunky and ugly art, a sad end for The first season of Mean Arena
The quality of the strip held up for a time, but whether because of the deadline problems that Steve McManus recalls as an ongoing issue for the strip, or for other reasons, later episodes from Richardson lack the detail and the interest of his earlier work.  Some of those strips look rushed and incomplete.  Steve Dillon's art in Progs 199 and 200 promised much, but by that time it was too late.  Richardson returned for one final episode in Prog 201 before the story ended in the next issue with art by Johnny Johnston that was decidedly average.

The strip returned in Prog 218, Tom Tully still on hand but this time with Steve Dillon on the art from the beginning.  More assured and with a greater sense of space, Dillon's early episodes looked better and more dynamic than anything that had gone before.  Tully introduced new bad guys, the Malevolent Seven, one of whom looked suspiciously like Tharg, 2000AD's editor.

What might have been - dynamic art from Steve Dillon

The issues up until Prog 223 were probably the best of the entire run.  Steve Dillon brought something extra to the strip, but despite promise of a new episode the next Prog, there were two Mean Arena free issues to follow.  What was worse, when the strip returned Dillon was missing.  Instead the art was by Eric Bradbury.  Bradbury was a great artist, one of the very best in British comics, but despite providing a great cover this was a mismatch.  He simply did not suit the Mean Arena strip.

The strip meandered on for some time.  Bradbury was replaced by the uninspiring 'M White' and Tom Tully by Alan Ridgeway.  The stories were gimmick-ridden and forgetable, something Tully would not have allowed.

Whatever Mean Arena had had going for it had, by now, long since disappeared. When it finally came to an end in Prog 282 it was almost a relief.  

It would be a long time before another sports strip found its way into 2000AD.  Perhaps it was the wrong time.  The rest of the comic had moved and had the unique, almost manic spirit that was the classic 2000AD.   New strips, like Rogue Trooper and Ace Trucking Co. were on hand and fitted the spirit of the comic so much better.

Mean Arena had been a good idea, it was very well conceived and Tully did a decent job on the writing.  But sub-standard art and a new writer meant that it simply did not belong.  Personally I'd enjoyed it, I've always liked future sports stories and the small number of Dillon episodes had shown what a great strip it could have been. But, by the end I did not mourn its passing.  I'd have forgotten about it but for a chance visit to Harry Hall's, a second hand bookshop in Belfast well known to comic fans of a certain age from the city.

It would have been about 1984 and I was working nearby, I popped in to find something to read at lunchtime.  I was attracted to a beat-up paperback by Gary K Wolf.  Its cover featured a man in futuristic armour and a long knife, standing in a cityscape.  The book was called 'Killerbowl'.  The blurb declared that it was about Street Football, an ultra-violent version of gridiron football played in the near future on the streets of American cities.  I had to have it.

First UK Edition
I read it in two sittings, after all I had to do some work that afternoon.  It was a strange book, written in the present tense like a movie treatment.  I always suspected that it may have been conceived as such.  But it was fast moving and entertaining.  I really enjoyed it, but with a little twist at the back of my mind that spoiled it just a little.

I was disturbed that someone had stolen ideas from a favourite comic strip.  It was so similar.  All the details of the game were the same.  The names of the various positions and even the basic plot were too close for comfort.  Sure Gary Wolf had transported the game to the USA and changed the name but this was 'The Mean Arena'.

And then I checked the publication date.  1976, a full four years before Mean Arena had been written.

I've always known that comics 'borrow' ideas from other mediums.  2000AD was no stranger to this.  A number of early future shocks bear great resemblance to classic science fiction stories of the forties and fifties and at least one series borrowed heavily from the ideas of well-known Belfast Science Fiction writer James White.  Even the excellent Halo Jones Book 3 appears to have used some ideas from Joe Hademan's Forever War.

But those writers, in general, used the ideas they borrowed as jumping off points for story developments or as background.  This is the way writers have operated forever.   But there had nothing quite as blatant as this in any comics I had seen.  The only real changes I could detect were the changing of names, the shift of location to the UK and the transformation to a strip that Tully hoped he could turn into a semi-regular feature of 2000AD.  Simply put the entire set-up of the game and the general overarching plot were too similar to be coincidence.

Mean Arena, as far as I could see was a straight, uncredited, adaptation of the novel Killerbowl.

Editor, Steve McManus remembers Tully bringing the idea to him.  In the new edition of Thrill Power Overload he recalls a conversation about a street football game played in Holland.   Tully proposed moving the game to the future and developing it into a future sport. 

Holland does indeed have a tradition of organised street football, but that is soccer and the idea that someone could have developed that into such a similar game as the one described in Killerbowl is inconceivable.
Cover of the US edition, I think we fared better.

Tully may have felt under pressure.  2000AD was developing an identity all its own, Mills and Wagner had caught a tone that appealed to the comics’ loyal readership.  They were getting a mixture of the regular fans of the British weeklies and the American Comics fans who had become somewhat snooty about Battle, Lion or Victor.

Tully's style was not, it probably appeared to him, what was wanted anymore.  Perhaps it was desperation to hold on to a market for his writing, perhaps it was just too easy.  I've no evidence he ever did anything similar before or since.

Mean Arena failed as a strip, it had all the elements it needed to succeed.  The most coherent set-up of any future sports comic strip I've ever read.  A dramatic plot and good characters.  In the end it probably failed because it was in the wrong comic at the wrong time with the wrong artist.  But perhaps ultimately it failed because Tom Tully was working with someone else's concepts and someone else's ideas and he never quite got a handle on just how to make them work.    

Gary's breakthrough book.
Killerbowl, the novel, may not have been a huge success at the time.  I certainly had not heard of it before picking up my old second-hand copy.  Wolf would have to wait for his Roger Rabbit books for his big successes.   But it is without doubt one of the best Future Sports yarns about and has built up a loyal following since its publication.  It takes a few moments to get past the unusual present-tense style, but after that this is the book for the sports fan who also likes science fiction.  And any 2000AD fans who read Mean Arena, its well worth a look at what I am almost certain was the source material for the strip.

I contacted Gary K Wolf, who tells me that he is working on updating the Killerbowl book.  The new version will be called Street Lethal and will be set in 2051-2052.  He still thinks it would make a 'killer' comic-book and I tend to agree.

I let him read a late draft of this article and he sent the following message:

I read Mean Arena when the strip was reprinted in comic book form.  A fan alerted me to the rip-off.  I had to track down copies from rare comic dealers and pay a hefty price to read the plagiarized  version of my own work. 

Oddly, this is not the first time somebody "borrowed" the plotline and characters from Killerbowl.  In the late '80's, a fan wrote me asking if I had any involvement in the MOVIE version of Killerbowl.  I told him no since there was no movie version of Killerbowl. He told me to check out an obscure Italian science fiction movie, the name of which I've forgotten.  I tracked down a VHS copy and watched the film.  Sure enough, the first  third of the movie was a direct rip-off of Killerbowl.  The second third of the film ripped off the plotline from my second science fiction novel A Generation Removed.   

To complete the triple play, the third third of the  movie stole the plotline from my third science fiction novel The Resurrectionist.  I grudgingly give snaps to the Italian film team for making a somewhat coherent movie out of three completely dissimilar stories.  I looked into suing, but my entertainment attorney told me the trial would have to take place in Italy, would undoubtedly last for months, and, even though I would certainly prevail, the fly-by-night production company would be long gone with all my lira.  Instead, in my own small manner of protest, I've sworn off pasta for life.

If you believe that imitation is, indeed, the sincerest form of flattery,  I am possibly the most flattered writer I know.

Gary K. Wolf

Creator of Roger Rabbit

You can find Gary's books on this page.

If you have not read parts 1 & 2, here are links to the previous parts:

Part 1 

Part 2


Sunday, 5 February 2017

Epilogue - Stuart J McCune

I'd been waiting for this one.  Epilogue is the final part in a sequence of comics from Northern Ireland artist Stuart McCune and his Millicent Barnes imprint and it was worth waiting for.

An A5, beautifully printed and finished, square-bound book, Epilogue has a stunning cover.  A bold and striking image of the island on which much of the Ghost story contained within its pages is set.   This isn't an easy read, it's probably Stuart's most ambitious story to date, with a theme that only becomes clear at the very end.

His words, mainly a first person narration, are carefully selected and at times have a strange formality to them.  This is a comic that benefits from a re-reading or two.  The ending changes much of what has gone before.  What seemed superfluous, sometimes meaningless dialogue, gains significance and at least one phrase which I took to be a mistake on first reading suddenly becomes an early clue to the twist in the story. 

It is not a one-dimensional piece either, Stuart weaves multiple themes into this comic.  There is the story itself, but then there are little asides about the nature and artificiality of art.  At one point one of the characters insists that sometimes it isn't enough to consider a painting on its own, but that we should look at the actual paint.  An interesting idea in terms of a comic which I find myself picking up to look at individual pages separate from the whole.

None of the 'Millicent Barnes Comics' Stuart's Imprint, make any attempt at 'realistic' art, in some ways they don't look like comics at all.  The closest we get is the geometric formality of his buildings, but in general his work has an impressionistic feel to it.  His faces can jar, having an animalistic, fluid aspect to them and the closest comparison I can make is to the wilder work of Bilal.            

The whole tenor of Epilogue is oppressive, even when the characters are in a boat on the open sea, a dark sky gathers round them closing their world down.  Some of Stuart's previous comics have made great use of open space, with areas of solid colours giving the pages an out-of-doors, open feeling.  Not so with Epilogue.  The colour palate is dark and oppressive, with strong reds and a sickly yellow standing out against browns and other earthy shades Even the decision to print this book at the smaller A5 size seems to add to the feeling of claustrophobia.

I said at the beginning that this was not an easy read, but it is a rewarding one.  As usual, Stuart's art is beautiful and the ideas in his story come through beautifully.  He has said that he sees this as the end of a sequence of books, that he will be starting something new, well this was a good way to end something.

Epilogue was funded through Kickstarter, Stuart's fifth campaign.  As ever, everything was completed on time and perfectly presented.   It's a stunning comic, something very special and I've not done it justice here.

I said in my previous post that the Millicent Barnes books have been among the highlights of my exploration of the self-published scene.  I shouldn't limit my praise, they are among the highlights of my comic reading.  In the eighties, when comics creators, and readers were trying to prove that graphic storytelling was a legitimate art form there was too much pretentious attempts at doing something different.   Most of the attempts were incomprehensible or ugly and boring.  Epilogue achieves all of those artists’ aims by being what it is.

You can buy Millicent Barnes Comics from Comixology or Big Cartel and its worth checking out the Millicent Barnes Tumblr site.