Saturday, 15 October 2016

The Rise and Fall of Sports Comics in 2000AD Part 2 - A Near Death Experience


With senior management's interference forcing Harlem's Heroes to stutter to an unsatisfying anti-climax in Prog 27, things didn't look good for sports strips in 2000AD.  Indeed in some ways things didn't look that great for the comic itself.  Relations between the staff and the senior management of the comics section were at a low point.  Creativity was being stifled as the pressures of the Action controversy rumbled on.  "There was almost a book-burning attitude towards comics after what had happened with Action" said Kevin O'Neill in Thrill-Power Overlord.

Some of this repressive atmosphere may have been a leftover from the 'horror-comic' moral panic of the fifties.  I know from my own experience that throughout the sixties and seventies my parents were convinced that American comics were a pernicious influence and anything that implied that British comics were going the same way would have been a worry for them.

The end of civilisation as we knew it
There was a general air of suspicion of young people and their culture at the time.  Self-appointed moral guardians found newspapers like the Sun, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail only too willing to publicise their fears and claims without any thought of challenging their evidence.  TV was under pressure for swearing and permissiveness and punk rock looked like it was going to bring about the end of western civilisation.

Any company who dared to ignore the so-called consumer groups were likely to be subject to damaging boycotts and terrible, often unfounded, headlines in the press.  Most importantly for IPC, the publishers of 2000AD, was that W H Smiths, the leading newsagent chain in the country, seemed to be particularly nervous about these actions.  IPC, one of the biggest publishers of all types of magazine did not want their relationship with their biggest retailer damaged by a comic

In was in this atmosphere that John Sanders, head of the IPC Youth Group, was dealing with the editors of his comics.  He was in regular contact with Mary Whitehouse, and her National Viewers and Listeners Association and spent time fending off approaches from another self-appointed group called "The Responsible Society" and other self-important and self-publicising organisations desperately looking for something, anything, to be offended by.

Sanders used his Managing Editor, Bob Bartholomew, to monitor the contents of the comics.  His role was, at least in part, to make sure that there was nothing in the comics that would cause the company to fall foul of campaign groups.  Bartholomew's experience with comics was limited.  He'd learnt his trade as editor of the excellent educational weekly "World of Wonder".  A smaller-sized stablemate of Look and Learn, it featured a mixture of history, science and adaptations of stories from literature and was the type of 'comic' that parents bought for their children - mine certainly did.

But as editor, Bob seemed to understand a little of what will hold the interest of kids.  He added a science fiction serial to the mix from issue one and the history and science articles were more engaging that some of the longer articles in look and Learn.  It was a great publication, but did nothing to prepare him for the world of the comics that kids bought themselves.     

After the neutering of Action, 2000AD was probably the biggest headache for Bartholomew, and Sanders.   Concerns were constantly being expressed about the body count in Invasion, artwork and scripts on Flesh and later Shako, a story about a giant Polar Bear, were subject to revision to reduce the level of violence and gore.

Harlem's Heroes had been one of the main victims of this atmosphere of self-censorship.  The strip had degenerated into a harmless, toothless sports story.  The final three episodes, with Dave Gibbons being replaced by Belardinelli, had been rushed and lacked the strips earlier excitement.  So any decision to bring back a re-tooled and more violent version of the strip in the form of Inferno would seem to make no sense at all.   But that exactly what they did.

The first episode of Inferno, appeared, behind an unispiring cover which had nothing to do with the contents of the comic, in Prog 36 in October 1977 The three survivors from the Harlem Heroes were attending an "Inferno" match.  Inferno was a new sport in Mega-City-One, "faster than speedway, crazier than ice hockey, tougher than football and deadlier than football".  It was Aeroball on steroids.  There were motorbikes, wirepoons and a goalkeeper armed with a club guarding a scoring cave.   Mostly there was more violence, lots more violence. 

From the beginning it was clear that the sport owed more to gang-warfare than it did to any idea of sportsmanship.  The new game had been designed by the promoters to have more blood and brutality.  Giant, the Heroes' leader is instantly dismissive of the game, "There's no skill in it" he says.    But his team-mates are keen to give it a go.  Persuaded to guest as flyers on the Washington team, he soon finds that the game is tougher than he thinks.

It was a great start to a series.  The Heroes try to bring their skills to Inferno, to play the game their way.  We instantly have a conflict in style and no difficulty in deciding who the good guys are.    In the second episode a gambling ring looking to make a killing through ruthless game fixing are introduced into the mix, and by the third a player has died in a flaming bike accident.  Things were looking good for an entertaining and long-running series.

Tom Tully was writing the script, continuing where he left off with the Heroes.  His expertise at holding the readers’ interest in what were often fairly repetitive strips would prove a a real asset.  Dave Gibbons had been moved off art chores onto the, arguably, more prestigious Dan Dare strip and Belardinelli continued as his replacementBelardinelli's art was suited to the increased levels of death and violence, but somehow he never seemed to capture the shape or the scale of the sport.

Inferno was popular with the readers, but the popularity seemed to depend on the body count.  The bigger the body count the better the fans liked it and Tom Tully and the 2000AD editorial team seemed happy to help out.

The Return of Gruber
The strips run marks a time when tensions appear to have been rising between the 2000AD team and Management.  Editor, Kelvin Gosnall, was clear about his feelings towards Bob Bartholomew.  "He was constantly interfering...  trying to turn a dynamic, late 1970's comic back into the Eagle."  He resented Bob's position as a barrier between editor and publisher.

Inferno was the main issue Bartholomew had with 2000AD, but it wasn't the only one.  Things were quite possibly made worse as Gosnall's attention was divided as he worked on the development and then publication of a new comic, Starlord leaving the relatively inexperienced Nick Landau in de facto control over 2000AD.  The fact that management had changed the whole concept of Starlord from a monthly to a weekly comic cannot have helped his mood.

Back in the storyline the Harlem Hellcats, as our Heroes team were now named, cut a swathe through the opposition.  The popular cyborg villain, Gruber, who had been so popular in the Harlem' Heroes strip returned .  While increased death-tolls were justified to Bartholomew by claiming that as the victims were not human and 'just cyborgs' so they could not really be killed.  Still, Inferno was in trouble with the guys in charge.
 
The downbeat ending to Inferno
What happened next is difficult to piece together.   Accounts from the main players differ.   But what cannot be in doubt is that with the strip due to come to a fairly final end, the creative team went all out.  The last three episodes were the most violent of all, with a crescendo of violence in Prog 75 where team leader, Giant, staked out on an x-shaped crucifix is forced to watch as his team are killed by a side made up of 'killer androids'.  Their enemies, a gambling syndicate, totally victorious.  The final page has Giant walking away from the graves of his team-mates.   A sobering end to an exciting series.

Very racy for a kids comic
Nobody involved can have been in any doubt of how senior management would react.  It is said that the strip had been late and had been approved by Nick Landau without it being seen by Bartholomew.  Kelvin Gosnall has always said that he was holiday the week the strip appeared and cannot be held responsible, but it is quite clear that there was an atmosphere at the time of trying to sneak things past Management.   Kevin O'Neil has said as much.  "There was a schoolboy attitude" he noted in Thrill-Power Overdrive.

For example, in Prog 76 an image of a topless woman had been sneaked into the Ant Wars Strip.  Potentially a big deal at the time.  The cover design to Prog 78 predictably drove Sanders ballistic, and while I have to say I've always thought it was one of the best early covers, it was an act of defiance to use it.  Finally the infamous use of the Jolly Green Giant in the Cursed Earth story demonstrates that the 2000AD team were well out of step with what management expected of them.




A great cover, no matter what management said.
What the team didn't know, according to Sanders, was how close 2000AD was to cancellation.  Sales were not fantastic and Starlord was selling more.  Still, neither sci-fi title was safe and the aggravation that they were causing Sanders must have been weighing heavily on his mind.  There was a real possibility that both would be cancelled.

In the end he decided to merge the two titles.  Normally the higher-selling title would remain, but Sanders felt that 2000AD was more established with newsagents and it was cheaper to produce than Starlord.  He also says that he had a feeling about 2000AD and finally decided that Starlord should merge into 2000AD.

Something had to be done.  Landau was to be the sacrifical lamb who carried the can for the Inferno debacle.  But it has to be remembered that there was a writer and an artist who must have known about the limitations management had put on them An editor content to retain his title but hand control to an inexperienced assistant and allow an atmosphere of rebellion to develop.  It seems to me that blame, if blame is the right word, should be shared out just a little more evenly than it has been in the 'official story'. 

Management may have allowed the title to survive, but they wanted changes, one in particular.  Landau was moved to the sub-editor position in Battle, itself going through a golden age of quality at the time.  He would not stay long, soon leaving to start a comic shop in Denmark Street in London.  A move that went pretty well for him.

Steve McManus took his place, arriving to find a comic bolstered by the influx of quality strips from Starlord.  Ro-Busters and Strontium Dog joined Dredd and Flesh in the first merged issue with  Robo-Hunter waiting in the wings.  The classic line-up of 2000AD was falling into place.

In the first part of this story I claimed that the early 2000AD line-up consisted of standard British comic fare covered with a thin veneer of science-fiction and huge dollop of Pat Mills' attitude.  The merger with Starlord was the start of a real change, within a very short time 2000AD would become a really good science-fiction comic.

There would be a bit of a wait for the next sports-strip and no repeat of the problems with management associated with Inferno but Mean Arena would have an interesting story all to itself.  A story I'll cover in part three of this series of articles.
       

Notes:

 Harlem Heroes and Inferno are fondly remembered by many fans and continued to be mentioned from time to time.

John ‘Giant’ Clay’s son became a supporting character in the Judge Dredd strip, becoming the first Judge Giant and a major supporting character in the Judge Cal serial.  He died an un-heroic death, being shot in the back during the Block mania story.

He would have a son, against all the rules, who also became a Judge.   Although this time he remained a cadet for a time.  He was a major part of the Necropolis story and has featured many time since as one of the top Judges in Mega-City one.  If anything has happened to him since, I don’t want to know.  May be in a story I have not read yet.

Inferno, the game, popped up in chapter 3 of the ”Wear One” story contained in the Judge Dredd year One prose anthology and serves as the background for a crime.    

Northern Ireland comic artist John Farrelly wrote and drew a Harlem heroes strip, Three Giants, for 2000AD Fanzine Zarjaz in 2003.  It’s available on-line and it’s a pretty good story.  But be aware, while the art is certainly worthy of its place in Zarjaz, John’s art has moved on a bit since then.  And that is a compliment to John, not in any way an insult to Zarjaz.

3 comments:

  1. (Young) Judge Giant is still around - he's appeared within the last few months.

    ReplyDelete
  2. The latest incarnation of Giant is currently storming a Sov stronghold in this week's Dredd story, 'Get Sin' by Rob Williams and Trevor Hairsine.

    ReplyDelete