As Rebellion rolls out more classic comic collections and gears up for the second Vigilant special from Simon Furman and Simon Coleby, Luke Williams looks back at earlier revivals of some British comic characters…
Rebellion are receiving plaudits for reviving and rebooting Fleetway properties, strips and characters that in some cases are fondly remembered and others cherished only by ardent fans.
In repackaging old material and releasing new versions via their series of specials and one offs for their (arguably middle aged) audience, Rebellion are hoping to broaden their publishing base from 2000AD and related publications. Whether they have been effective in attracting new or lapsed readers to comics is arguable, but sales on the Cor! and Buster Humour Special, for example, have been strong, so hopefully this will lead to further publications next year. Either way, they aren’t the first to have a stab at exhuming characters seemingly long forgotten characters.
Perhaps one of the most high profile attempts was Grant Morrison introducing IPC/Fleetway heroes in 2000AD‘s “Zenith Phase III”. Characters that were either clearly or analogous with, largely, Fleetway/IPC properties such as ”The Amazing 3”, “The Steel Claw” and ”The Leopard of Lime street”, and there were even a few cheeky nods to DC Thomson characters in it too, such as “Billy The Cat and Katie”.
In early summer 1990, Fleetway released the Classic Action Holiday Special, a 52 page one-off reviving several of their old characters in brand new stories, edited by Barrie Tomlinson, featuring new strips – “Kelly’s Eye”, “Robot Archie”. “Steel Claw”, “Skid Solo”, “Jet-Ace Logan”, “Janus Stark”, “Johnny Cougar”, “Captain Hurricane” and a Galaxus text story. (Lew Stringer has a fuller feature on this Special here on his Blimey! blog).
In 1992, under the auspices of Egmont, 2000AD revived a selection of characters in The 2000AD Action Special: “The Steel Claw” by Peter Hogan and Sean Phillips, “Dr. Sin” by John Smith and John Burns, “The Spider” by Mark Millar, David Hine and John Higgins, “Mytek the Mighty” by Si Spencer and Shaky Kane, “Kelly’s Eye” by Alan McKenzie and Brett Ewins, and “Cursitor Doom” by John Tomlinson and Jim Baikie, topped by a lovely cover by Brendan McCarthy, but no more water sprung from that particular well, after the publisher ran into an ownership row with IPC, whose characters featured.
(These Specials, in part, led to an agreement being drawn up between Egmont and IPC demarcating which British comic titles and characters each owned, now moot since Rebellion’s purchase of the comics back catalogue of both companies).
Titan Books also had a go, but concentrated on reprinting classic IPC /Fleetway war stories such as “Charley’s’ War” (their collections prompted by a groundswell of requests for collections, spearheaded by the late Neil Emery and further championed by the strip’s co-creator, Pat Mills), “Darkie’s Mob”, “Major Eazy”, “Rat Pack”, and “Johnny Red”.
More recently, Titan Comics published two new US format limited comic series, utilising Action’s “Hookjaw” and Battle’s “Johnny Red”, but Rebellion’s purchase of the Egmont-owned Fleetway characters ended their ability to publish further new stories).
Independent publisher Hibernia Comics have also kept the flame burning with their reprints of properties like “Doomlord”, now owned by the Dan Dare Corporation and “The Tower King” from New Eagle.
There were other reprints too, such as the “Kelly’s Eye” and “Rick Random” runs in 2000AD, and a series of reprints by Hawk Books, edited by Mike Higgs: four giant comic albums collecting Adventure, Fantasy, Girls and Humour strips. “Production on these albums was poor,” feels Hibernia publisher Dabid McDonald, “but the amount of content made up for it. New Eagle also did a few revamps”.
But what seems to have been forgotten is Wildstorm’s turn at the Fleetway resurrection shuffle. Three series were created, Garth Ennis and Colin Wilson’s take on “Battler Britton”, Dave Gibbons and John Higgins reboot of “Thunderbolt Jaxon” and the 2005 six-issue limited series Albion, plotted by Alan Moore and scripted by 2000AD regulars Leah Moore and John Reppion, drawn by Shane Oakley and George Freeman, trading on a (very) big creative name, on a series with some very obscure characters.
Albion sets the premise that all the characters in the old IPC and Fleetway comics actually existed and that the published comics were their reported and published adventures. Danny Doom, a comic fan (from the Valiant strip of the same name, published in the 1970s), obsessed with the old IPC and Fleetway comic characters, starts tracing the heroes and villains through an antiques dealer called Charlie Peace (from the Buster adventure strip, “he Elusive Charlie Peace/The Astounding Adventures of Charlie Peace”) and the daughter of Eric “House of Dolmann” Dolmann’s daughter, Penny (“Bad Penny” from Smash!).
The three of them track the villains and heroes of British comics to “The Castle”, once owned by Cursitor Doom, now a Ministry of Defence-run prison in Scotland, the British Government keeping the existence of these “monsters” a closely guarded secret.
Their various technologies have been exploited by the British government to give the country and edge. The Eye of Zoltec, from “Kelly’s Eye”, for example, is worn by the incumbent Prime Minister – after all, its properties that give the wearer invulnerability are better than any body armour.
But it makes the Americans nervous that these powerful beings can be set loose at any time, so they send Zachary ”Zip” Nolan (from Lion‘s “Spot the Clue with Zip Nolan”) to inspect the security of the site. The head warden of the prison is an adult Ian “Eagle Eye Junior Spy” Eagleton, who escorts Nolan around the site, where they inspect the grotesque menagerie of villains, freaks and formers heroes.
There, we meet “grittier” and more realistic versions of characters such as Faceache, Captain Hurricane, Robot Archie and Grimly Fiendish – and that;’s just for starters.
It doesn’t end there, of course: real life and fiction begin to merge all getting a bit “meta”, real comic creators appear and there are references to past publications and high profile fans plus other characters from TV and radio from the 1950s and 60s. Much like Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, the reader plays a game of spot the references.
Albion is, to my mind, the British comic character equivalent of Moore’s fabled Twilight of the Superheroes – and it can’t help but invite comparisons to Watchmen for its re-contextualising of characters.
What is particularly striking about Albion is that by the time this was published Moore had turned his back on “grim and gritty”, and was openly critical of radical and “mature” interpretations of childhood characters – but clearly this was the path this story was treading. The re-interpretations of the characters are quite dark: “The Spider” echoes Millar’s spin of the character in the 2000AD Action Special, as a sordid evil genius, Captain Hurricane is mentally damaged- prone to incredible acts of violence… and just don’t ask what happened to Faceache.
Shane Oakley’s art retains the surreal element of the original strips, but tonally, it’s jagged edges and heavy inks make it far more unsettling, fully in keeping with the script that treats the characters and damaged and as freaks.
Albion was a short-lived but interesting attempt at rebooting the UK characters for an American audience – arguably doomed to failure, due to the limited interest from the US. Perhaps the Dave Gibbons covers and Alan Moore plot were there to attract a readership that didn’t otherwise exist.
Sadly, while clearly it was hoped, from reading contemporary interviews and UK convention appearances at the time, that Albion would prove a jumping off point for ongoing series, at best we had Thunderbolt Jaxon, (Battler Britton was its own thing really) and that was that, no more.
We’ll just have to wait and see what comes next, won’t we…
• John Freeman’s 2005 interview with Andrew Sumner about the Albion project first published on Comic World News
2007 Creator Interviews
Albion Guides and Annotations
• Comics Should be Good offers a quick Albion primer called “An Unnecessary Guide to Albion” and the AFB Blog has a brief but excellent guide to the major characters in the story here – but if it’s a full checklist, notes, links and more you’re after then your best port of call in the brilliant “In the Fifty Pee” web site, now archived on Wayback Machine, which includes issue by issue Albion Annotations by Pádraig Ó Méalóid, Damian Gordon and the Bash Street Contributors: Issue One | Issue Two | Issue Three | Issue Four | Issue Five | Issue Six | Annotations for the Collection
• International Hero
A terrific guide to British comic characters