The British Superhero by Chris Murray (book review).

I have to confess to being a little confused when I started reading Chris Murray’s book, ‘The British Superhero’ when there is so much emphasis on American comicbook history. It isn’t as though comics were a new invention over here and even Murray says our settings hardly lent themselves to the skyscraper cities of the USA. In our own way, we might not have had costumed heroes, but we did have our own sprinkling of them sans super-powers. Oddly, he doesn’t place much emphasis on escapologist Jonas Clarke (1971-7) or even ‘The Two Faces Of Janus’ (1968). There is mention of detective Sexton Blake from the comics, although he was largely forgotten by the 60s and if it hadn’t been for the Laurence Payne starring TV series I wouldn’t have heard of him. I’ve always felt it a shame that it’s never been released on DVD to see if it’s as good as I remembered. Please bear with me as my comments below are based on what I read and what I also know.

There are a few details Murray does miss out on. The captions under the panel art were there largely to fulfil education requirements for giving kids something to read other than word balloons and they were still prevalent in British comics into the 1960s, especially for the very young. Our comics were sort of a graduation class where after a couple years on each one you would then move up to a different reading class. For me, in the 1960s, it started with the likes of ‘Playhour’ and ‘Teddy Bear’ before really hitting my stride with ‘TV21’ and then American comics.

It’s rather interesting seeing the list of candidates as to who was the first British super-hero. In the running, we have ‘Dicky The Bird-Man’ from ‘Comic Cuts’ in 1920. The illustration panels clearly shows him to be a comedy character. The Scarlet Bat or Winged Avenger in 1943’s ‘Film Fun Annual’ is more like it with some similarities to Batman. Oddly, we had an ‘(The) Iron Man in ‘The Rover’ in 1933 as well and, yes, he was armoured although there is no reference made to another albeit plain-clothed robot/android ‘(The) Iron Man’ from 1963 first in ‘Boy’s World’ and then ‘The Eagle’. Then there is ‘Derickson Dene’ in 1939 as an answer to ‘Flash Gordon’. Derivatives based on existing characters did show a template for borrowing but neglects original characters as well.

Of course, American comics were seeping over here before and after WW2 and Superman was adjusted to how he was needed to be sold over here, even if it was the newspaper strips than the comicbook version. The British answer for a brief time was ‘The Amazing Mr. X’ in 1944 and the sample shows him having a secret identity. However, something that struck me, especially when it came to Denis Gifford (who was an artist/writer before a historian) and his art samples was that these people did not know the size of the original art that was drawn in America which would explain why so many of the samples weren’t drawn to scale. When photo-reduction was available, the original comic pages were generally two-thirds larger before the later third larger if samples I’ve seen of Leo Baxendale’s cartoon pages are anything to go by. That’s a massive advantage that in the post-WW2 we simply didn’t have. That’s not so say it remained that way and not with all companies but does explain some of the squeezed art in the samples shown.

The post-war British super-heroes are easier to recognise although I’m not sure why he thinks Captain America has an ‘A’ not a star on this chest. As shown here, the likes of Captain Zenith, Electroman and Marvelman/Miracleman owe more to Fawcett’s Captain Marvel for their origins than to DC Comics’ Superman. That can hardly be surprising when you consider DC sued Fawcett, although you would have thought that would have caused even more of a problem. Rather quaintly, Britain had a Captain Universe back in 1951 long before Marvel Comics had one or more, depending on how you look at it, in the 1980s.

When it comes to the 1960s-1970s, I’m definitely in my era and picking out on details that should have been acknowledged. Take Power Comics. Murray doesn’t point out how dwindling sales of their five comics ultimately ended them but neglects to mention them merging so we ended up having ‘Fantastic And Terrific’ and ‘Pow And Wham’ for a while, taking the best from each. While the former was eventually dropped, the latter then merged with ‘Smash!’ Equally, there is no mention that ‘Starlord’ (not to be confused with the Marvel character) was merged with ‘2000AD’ and where is the line drawn for ‘Strontium Dog’ and ‘Rogue Trooper’? I did like how we Brits were ignored when it came to what not to do when it came to Captain Britain’s costume design and that we aren’t into continual patriotic flag-waving.

Oddly, the chapter dealing with 1981-1993 tends to deal more with our creative exports to the USA more than our home-grown heroes. That’s not to say they aren’t there but less abundant. The fact that tends to come over most is we Brits are more cynical and hard-hitting than the Americans when it comes to their own subject of super-heroes. Analytically, there’s room for both sorts of comicbooks and although it’s easier for us to write cynically, fewer Americans can make a similar transition or have the trust of their editors to do this. With the current emphasis of editor control in the USA, I suspect new writers are going to find this harder to live with.

Bringing us up to date in the sixth chapter, I think I was most appalled by both Marvel and DC hammering down neo-British comics to squeeze them out of the American market. When you consider how many British writers and artists are hired by them, we really do need more than ‘2000AD’ in the UK to hone new talent. Part of me also feels that we’re hashing and updating our old characters far too much and we really need to work more on what really appeals to make our own type of (super-)heroes work.

Coming away from this book, I did have to wonder about anything that was missed. A lot of time it’s the definition of ‘hero’ and medium. If you extend into the newspaper strips then you have to wonder where are the likes of ‘Garth’ and ‘Modesty Blaise’ let alone ‘Jeff Hawke’ weren’t noted. Maybe Chris Murray might also have an examination of our more Science Fiction based comicstrip stories. Even publishers DC Thomson had the likes of ‘The Swarm’ amongst its stories and certainly ‘Smash!’ had several of its own.

Don’t treat my comments as put-downs. There is a lot of accuracy with this book and I’m only catching the minor things here. You will learn a lot about the British and even some elements of the American comicbook industry here and that can’t be a bad thing.

GF Willmetts

November 2017

(pub: University Press Of Mississipi. 304 page illustrated indexed hardback. Price: £61.50 (UK), $63.99 (US). ISBN: 978-1-4968-0737-3)

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Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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