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



  1. Grud, that's a bit of foul play.

  2. The guy on the cover to the UK edition of Killer Bowl is wearing armour very, very similar to that of the team the Harlem Heroes played in their very first ever story, the Greek City Gladiators! This future sports thing is very incestuous, ideas-wise, isn't it?!?

  3. Interesting article but a few things

    The Blackhawk strip absolutly deserved to be in 2000AD the story was all about other worlds aliens and Spacships Blackhawk was not really any different to Wulf Sternhammer

    Quote "Mean Arena started well enough, the first episode appearing in Prog 178.This was the first time 2000AD had featured a free gift" .... Issues 1, 2 and 3 all had free gifts

    Quote "Street Lethal and will be set in 20151-2052" ... You sure of those dates ?

    its a really intersting read but you need to proofread before you publish and check up on some stuff first ....I am going to have read Killerbowl now though