Monday, 27 March 2017

Bear Alley Books Sale - Part Two "Arena".

There is less than a week to go before two volumes of reprints of classic D.C Thompson adventure strips disappear from the market.  They are published by Steve Holland's Bear Alley Books and the license Steve obtained for them is about to expire.

As a result the remainder of the stock is for sale, until the end of March, at a 25% discount, after which the books will disappear altogether.  In my previous post time I wrote about, the "Frontline U.K." book, a strip taken from the seventies title, Bullet, this time I'm going to look at "Arena".

Arena, a science fiction strip set in the distant 21st century, was the opening story when the first issue of The Crunch appeared on 20th January 1979.  Described as D.C. Thompson's answer to 2000AD, it was, in reality, more akin to another attempt to emulate the Mills/ Wagner titles from IPC.  It was an edgier, more modern version of D.C Thompson's other variety titles Victor and Hotspur which by now were beginning to show their age.  As such it can perhaps be seen as Bullet Mk II, the previous title having merged with Warlord just over a month earlier in December 1978.

The Crunch did feature science fiction stories heavily throughout its 54 issue run, but only as part of a mixture of genres.  There were football stories, spy adventures and strips which were clearly influenced by the gritty cop shows so popular at the time.  But it was Arena which was given the honour of opening the first issue. 

Written by Dave H. Taylor and with art by the Argentinian, Enrique Alcatena, the strip told the story of a dystopian future where freedom of speech had all but disappeared.  The hero, Mark Sabor, a journalist found guilty of writing anti-government material, had his citizenship revoked and was sentenced to fight for his life in, The Arena.

Taylor's future is one where countries are secondary to corporations, where hidden authorities rule from behind layers of secrecy.  This background allows the strip to avoid the 'opponent of the week' cliché that would have been so easy to fall into, and gave it more substance than might be expected from a quick glance at the rest of the comic.

Arena from The Crunch 1
Taylor was a long-time science fiction fan, he’d published an influential Science Fiction Fanzine, nebula, before becoming a writer for D C Thompson.  He’d started his career with “The Witchfinder” in Bullet and would go on to work for almost all of the Dundee publisher’s boys’ comics of the seventies.  He has said that he was ‘irked’ that, unlike with 2000AD, no writer or artist credits were included on his strips. So he had a habit of inserting himself and his friends into strips.  A keen runner, he wrote himself into a ‘Tough of the Track’ strip as Alf Tupper’s opponent in a race.
In Arena he is clearly enjoying himself, playing with a mixture of themes popular in SF at the time.  The oppressive regime echoes Orwell's 1984, while the idea of televised, brutal 'sports' had been popularised by the Rollerball and Death Race 2000 movies.  The idea of rule by corporations had been common in science fiction since the fifties and while not science fiction, I can't help but wonder if the Spartacus movie acted as something of an inspiration for the plot of the first series.  

Early episodes are, perhaps, overly wordy with Alcatena's art crowded and compressed into small panels by the sheer volume of words in the scripts.  The quality of paper used by D. C. Thompson for their comics didn't help either, much of the printing looked muddy and indistinct and it’s only with the publication of Steve's reprint book that it’s been possible to see the quality of the artwork.

Alcatena was a prolific artist.  His work appeared regularly in Skorpio, an Argentinian weekly for whom he would draw ‘Ulster’ an unfinished adaptation of the Cú Chulainn legend in 1996.  I’ve not seen any of this, but am certainly on the search.  A comparison to other adaptations of Irish myth might be very interesting.   

In the US he is best known for two excellent graphic novels, Moving Fortress and its sequel Subterra published by 4winds Publishing and for working with Tim Truman on Hawkworld and The Spider.  He drew strips for Marvel’s black and white magazine, Conan the Savage and had worked on Batman and Green lantern strips.  In the UK he had entries in D C Thompson’s Starblazer and worked with Alan Grant on Makabre for Toxic.  Following the closure of Skorpio in 1996 he contributed to a number of different magazines in Argentina and until 2014 maintained a Blog where his artwork was displayed, including a stunning Dr Strange tribute.      

Arena ran for two series.  The first in issues 1-13 came to what looked like a final ending to a self-contained strip.  But in issue 35 Arena returned, sharing the limelight with a new character, Starhawk, who would become a fixture in a number of D C Thompson weeklies for years to come.  That run, apart from a two week break, would see 'The Crunch' thought to its final issue, cover dated 26th January 1980.

Cover to the final issue of The Crunch featuring Ebony
The Crunch had lasted just over a year.  It had introduced Starhawk who would go on to be featured in Hotspur, Victor, Buddy and Spike along with three Starhawk issues of the long running science fiction picture library, Starblazer.  It had featured a character who was probably, the first female action hero to lead a strip in a British boy’s comic in the shape of the less than subtly named Ebony.  (She was black).

There had been a number of memorable stories, including 'Hitler Lives' and 'Mindstealers', but it suffered from the same faults that early episodes of Arena had clearly demonstrated.  The pages are often crowded and unappealing and much of the art is simply sub-standard. 

 Arena stood out because of Alcatena's skilful and stylish drawing.  His page design comes into its own late in the run where Dave Taylor seems to have realised that 'less is more' in terms of scripting.   Even then it is only with this book published by Steve Holland, that the quality of the art becomes clear.   

It’s fascinating to compare Arena with the early years of 2000AD.   The contrast between the Mills/Wagner approach to SF and that of D C Thompson is shown very clearly and it is easy to see why 2000AD is still being published.  Even Arena, the best of the D C Thompson crop has a feeling of a different time, of looking back to the science fiction of the fifties and sixties.  Mills and Wagner were looking to what was going on around them.  To the movies that were popular at the time.  Perhaps that’s why 2000AD is still being published and there is nothing left of D C Thompson's sci-fi output?   

That being said, this book is a worthy addition to Steve's stable of reprints and it’s a huge shame that it will be going out of print.   You can read what Steve has to say about the book himself and buy a copy of Arena on his excellent Bear Alley blog here. 

A page from The Crunch 51, the peak for Arena.

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