The Mighty One: Life Inside The Nerve Centre by Steve MacManus (book review).

In 1973, young Steve MacManus applied to IPC for a job at a football magazine. It was already filled but someone told him there was a vacancy for a sub-editor in the comics department. They took him and he first worked on ‘Valiant’, a British comic where most strips were about World War II or sport. World War II still gripped the British imagination back then with old films on every Sunday afternoon in which chaps with stiff upper lips would fly spitfires and combat the Hun. But the times were changing.

The comics were starting to look old-fashioned and tame compared to the television shows and films of the day. MacManus was there when the comics altered to keep up. ‘The Mighty One: Life Inside The Nerve Centre’ is his story.

In those halcyon days of yore, comic-strips were usually three pages long and there were eight of them to a 32-page comic with a few features about sport or war padding out the rest. Artists drew three pages a week and earned about £100, which wasn’t bad. Most of them were freelance. Many were Europeans like Carlos Ezquerra. Writers had to script four strips a week to earn a decent living, but that was doable. Editors like Macmanus checked it all, compiled, made sure the correct slice of a serial was in the right issue and sent it off to the printers. Everyone was in a trade union. Comics were the humblest department in IPC and executives mainly cared about the women’s magazines which made all the money.

Writers and artists got no credit on the pages and earned an ordinary wage. Many of them had fought in the war and seen real-life horror. They didn’t need to imagine it and probably didn’t want to neither. That was a job for the next generation. There were no superstars or millionaires. IPC stored the art in a warehouse for possible future reprint use and no one thought it was worth anything.

That changed. ‘Battle Picture Weekly’ and ‘Action!’, forerunners in violence and gore, paved the way for ‘2000AD’. ‘Star Wars’ helped by making space opera popular again. MacManus rightly distinguishes between real Science Fiction, which he doesn’t much care for and adventures set in the future or space opera. Most popular media, including ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Star Trek’, are adventures set in the future with some Science Fiction trappings. Time travel, robots and warp engines are plot devices to make ripping yarns. Dystopias provide an ideal setting for future law enforcement officers and the artists get to draw beautiful things.

MacManus took over the top job shortly after Pat Mills’ departure and, as editor of ‘2000AD’ in its golden age, was one of the personnel involved in steering the comic. Only steering, though. The engineers were the talented writers and artists who produced the scripts. Pat Mills created ‘2000AD’, ably assisted by John Wagner and later significant contributors were Alan Grant, Kevin O’Neill, Dave Gibbons and myriad others.

Encouraged by Pat Mills, sub-editor MacManus wrote a few scripts. Still, when he became the editor of ‘2000AD’, his principal function was to organise, supervise, keep everyone reasonably happy and make sure the comics were published on time every week. It was a full-time job and gave him a broad view of events which qualifies him to write this history.

The book is a light, easy read full of interesting anecdotes about the many characters he encountered along the way, including Alan Moore. Big Al started by contributing ‘Future Shocks’ and went on to create ‘The Ballad Of Halo Jones’, ‘D.R And Quinch, and other legends. ‘2000AD’ was a nursery for new talent, both writers and artists. In time, many of them went off to work for American comics, which is a shame, but you can’t blame them. Having started in the game when the staff were anonymous men in suits, MacManus seems to be slightly baffled by fandom, conventions, fame and the big money that some stars began making.

Each chapter is about a particular year which greatly enhances clarity. Too many memoirs roll along without reference to dates so the reader loses track of time. Here you know exactly when you are at each step. Also, MacManus is not an egomaniac and, while it is his story, much of the focus is on the works of others. He is self-deprecating and humorous, even about the alter ego he calls Bad Steve, who appeared now and then, possibly when drink had been taken. Yes, readers, the geniuses behind your favourite comic strips did spend quite a lot of time in the pub. Shocking.

The latter part of the book details the various efforts to follow up the success of ‘2000AD’ with ‘Crisis’ and ‘Revolver’. They failed. Perhaps the market isn’t big enough for too much stuff every week. ‘The Judge Dredd Megazine’ is a success, though and continues. ‘2000AD’ survived various corporate buyouts and reshuffles, yea even unto Maxwell, and is still going now. The rest of the British comic industry is primarily given over to licensed products, Disney and so on, another change Macmanus saw happen.

When he started, comics were for readers aged 8-12. Nowadays, ‘2000AD’ is for teenagers, young adults and fans who grew up with it. The last group may be the majority. Sales are not huge but it lives long and even prospers under the umbrella of Rebellion/2000AD publishing, from whom you can buy this book direct. Under the ‘Treasury Of British Comics’ imprint, they issue plenty of classic strip collections, too, and the website is worth a visit.

I’ve lately reviewed three books about this period in British comics history and I have to say that this one was my favourite. First was ‘Be Pure! Be Vigilant! Behave! The Secret History Of 2000AD And Judge Dredd’ by Pat Mills, creator of ‘2000AD’ and rightly proud of his achievements. Next, ‘King’s Reach: 25 Years At The Top Of Comics’ by John Sanders, who is very proud indeed but was only an executive, not a creator, and this one by Steve MacManus.

He was ‘only’ an editor, not one of the great creators, but closer to the front line than Sanders, in a position that gave him a helpful overview of the projects. He started when comics were not very important and has kept some of that healthy attitude.

Eamonn Murphy

May 2021

(pub: REBCA, 2016. 304 page paperback. Price: £ 5.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-78618054-4)

check out website: https://rebellionpublishing.com/product/the_mighty_one/

Eamonn Murphy

Eamonn Murphy reviews books for sfcrowsnest and writes short stories for small press magazines. His eBooks are available at all good retailers or see his website: https://eamonnmurphywriter298729969.wordpress.com/

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.