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Comics and Crumpets Column Three: British Comics characters revived – by DC

Andrew Sumner
Andrew Sumner

This feature first appeared on the now defunct Comic World News on 31st January 2005.

BRITISH COMICS CHARACTERS REVIVED – BY DC

This issue, I’ve got more information on two projects reviving some classic British comics — and am pleased to be able to settle and age old argument among fans that has been raging for years about which company owns which British characters here in the UK, once and for all. Also: news on the pulping of the entire 200,000 print run of one of Britain’s top comics and the launch of a British comics anthology from some of our top creators.

Last year, DC Comics announced Albion, a six-issue project for its Wildstorm imprint from Alan and Leah Moore and John Reppion, drawn by Shane Oakley. Albion will revive many old comics characters which first appeared in British comics in the 1960s such as master criminal The Spider and invisible thief The Steel Claw — possibly two of the first UK comics “anti heroes”, although both characters were softened later in their run. Albion is set to launch 10 November 2005.

Titan Books in London will also be publishing new collections of The Spider this year, the first featuring a new cover by Garry Leach and including one of the Spider’s adventures that was written by Superman co-creator Jerry Siegel. Collections of The Steel Claw are set to follow.

The revival is causing something of a stir in the UK, not least because the boy’s adventure comic market is virtually non existent these days, so sadly there’s little chance of a comic being published for the news stand here featuring Albion material, not even as reprint. The characters in question are all owned by IPC Media, now owned by Time Warner, parent company of DC Comics and Wildstorm.

Late last week I caught up with Andrew Sumner at IPC, who has been instrumental in getting both projects off the ground and kindly gave me more information on both. A huge comics fan, Andrew’s worked in magazine publishing for 17 years.

“I started out writing about comics and movies for magazines like John Brown’s late, lamented [comics magazine] Speakeasy, Total Film and the [music paper] NME,” says Sumner. “I’ve written for IPC Media’s Uncut, the world’s biggest movie and music magazine, since editor Alan Jones launched it in 1997 and I’m now the publisher. Until recently I was also the publisher of men’s magazine Loaded (I moved over to concentrate solely on Uncut, which is now a hugely successful global brand) and I spent the first six months of last year as the launch publisher of Nuts.

Andrew, it turns out is a lifelong comics fan, which explains his enthusiasm for the Albion project and Spider collections.

“I’ve been a mental comics fan since Pops (my grandfather) bought me my first issue of Detective Comics in 1966,” he reveals. “The first film that my dad ever took me to see was the Adam West Batman movie. I’ve been hooked on comic books ever since and I’ve got 30,000 US comic books stored between London and Merseyside (where I grew up).” I found out later that he and Forbidden Planet owner Nick Landau — a friend of Andrew’s  for many years — often challenge each other on who’s got the earliest issue of a comic’s run…

“My favourite British comic characters are, hands down, The Steel Claw, Janus Stark and The Spider,” says Andrew. “Outside of their macabre adventure heroes, I found Lion and Valiant rather staid, so my favourite British comics were Cor! (I was particularly fond of Dr Rat), Sparky, Warlord, Bullet, Action, and later, Dez Skinn’s magnificent Hulk Weekly and the first 150 (still the best, in my opinion) issues of 2000AD. Even later, of course, I was a massive fan of Warrior. Marvelman and V for Vendetta were works of genius.

“For some reason, I’m also rather fond of Captain Hornet from DC Thomson’s Hornet and King Cobra from DC Thomson’s Hotspur,” he confesses, “Two rubbish heroes! Maybe because they were home grown British superheroes in the early 70’s when there really were no home grown British superheroes! They also had a completely different — and much more Anglocentric – tone to them than the 70’s Marvel UK Brit heroes like Captain Britain (of course I love the later Alan Davis incarnation).”

At this point, Sumner reveals his favourite contemporary British comic is, of course, Paul Grist’s razor-sharp Jack Staff. Currently published by Image, Grist has been playing homage to British comics heroes in this title for five years, but ran afoul of IPC with the inclusion of his own version of the Spider the title. “Before anyone asks,” says Andrew, “apart from asking Paul to desist from using The Spider — because we own that character and, for some reason, he chose not to change his name to The Arachnid — we’re happy for Jack Staff to continue in the excellent vein that Paul has established. All of his IPC homages are clever analogues of IPC’s intellectual property rather than blatant copyright-defying usages of our characters, so fear not readers – the brilliant Mr Grist isn’t running in fear of Time Warner’s monstrously efficient legal division.”

Before trying to extract more information on Albion, I asked Andrew how Titan’s The Spider project came about, aware that the magazine and books publishing company had been looking around for alternative UK material for reprint for some time, following the loss of its rights to publish 2000AD material such as Judge Dredd.

“The guys at Titan are really good mates of mine,” Andrew explains. “They have been ever since my brother (who is now the Associate Publisher of Wallpaper magazine) was their production controller about 10 years ago.

“Just before I put the Albion deal together with DC Comics, I had lunch with [Editorial Director] Katy Wild and Simon Furman (who was still on staff at Titan at that point, just before his Transformers work went through the roof). I suggested that they produce some Steel Claw and Spider archives. Nick Landau is a huge Spider fan and, unbeknownst to me, had already suggested to Katy that they look into who held the rights, so the moment we met, it was a done deal.

“I’m extremely pleased with the incredibly high standard of Titan’s work on the reprint editions,” Andrew says. “Nick Jones is a great editor — he’s really enthusiastic about comics and knows his stuff inside out. Everybody who was impressed with Titan’s recent Charley’s War collection is in for a treat – the first Spider volume is even better.”

Unfortunately, Titan is unable to scan from original artwork for the collections — although modern technology enables good reproduction from printed versions of Lion, the comic in which The Spider first appeared back in 1965. “The sad truth is that most of the original artwork has been pilfered, destroyed or lost [from our archive] over the last 30 years,” Sumner reveals. “I know, because I’ve gone over there and searched my guts out. It’s kind of a similar situation to all those thick c**** at the BBC who wiped most of the best episodes of Not Only But Also.

“What you’ll see in the archive reprints are high-quality, photoshop-improved scans from the best quality back issues that Titan could find.”

Titan’s reprint deal was agreed about a month before Sumner signed the Albion deal with Bob Wayne and Scot Dunbier at DC/WildStorm — a project still shrouded in secrecy, with no news, as yet, as to which IPC heroes will feature prominently.

“I really don’t want to spoil the surprise,” Andrew admits. “I’m sure that Alan, Leah, John and Shane would kill me if I spilled the beans! Suffice to say, I’m an oldtime UK comics fan and just about all the pre-1970 IPC adventure characters that I would like to see will appear in some form or other.”

And of course, if the revival is a success — and with the talent involved, there’s no doubting advance orders are likely to be strong — Andrew’s sure there will be further projects based on IPC’s characters. “That’s precisely what Bob Wayne [DC’s Vice President of Sales & Marketing], Scott Dunbier [Executive Editor of WildStorm] and I had in mind when we put the Albion deal together,” says Andrew, “and precisely what Katy Wild and I had in mind when we put the Titan reprints deal together.”

But of course, thanks to the number of company buyouts of comics titles down the years in the UK, there’s been plenty of fan debate as to which characters IPC actually own, after the company sold off its entire comics dvision to what’s now Egmont-Fleetway in the 1980s. Now, finally, Andrew can settle that debate once and for all.

“This is a subject that does the rounds on fansites and message boards that I can clear up – right here, right now,” he reveals. “IPC and Egmont Fleetway finally agreed respective ownership of intellectual property rights in the mid 1990’s. Which is why the (mostly terrible, except for Peter Hogan’s Steel Claw) 2000AD Action Special, which was published in 1992 was a complete mistake. Fleetway didn’t know at that time that they didn’t own the rights to those characters.

“The short answer is that IPC Media own all of the classic 1950’s and 1960’s IPC characters (and I’m talking about adventure characters, humour characters, sporting characters and the girls’ comic characters), Andrew reveals. “That includes the intellectual property rights for every company that it absorbed along the way (Odhams, Amalgamated Press, etc) – including magazine brands, comic characters, registered logos, etc.

“The actual ownership rights work like this,” Andrew outlines. “With one or two specified exceptions (which I’ll get to in a moment), IPC Media owns every IPC comic character created before 1970. Egmont-Fleetway owns every IPC character created after 1970. So, IPC owns Lion, Valiant, Pow, Tiger, etc and all their respective characters, while Egmont-Fleetway owns Cor!!, Action, Battle  and all their respective characters.

“The exceptions to this pre-1970 ownership threshold for IPC are 26 specifically-named characters (including the Leopard of Lime Street and a bunch of humour characters such as Buster himself) that featured in Buster — which was still being actively published by Fleetway when the IPC/Fleetway agreement was made. So the creation date does not apply to these characters and they are owned by Egmont-Fleetway.

“The other small exceptions are Dan Dare and Roy of the Rovers, who have both been sold off to other concerns a long time ago (a chronic mistake by a previous  IPC administration, in my opinion).

“In short, if you want to know which classic characters IPC have the rights to – go over to Loki’s excellent www.internationalhero.co.uk site and check out all the IPC characters created before 1970.”

With all those comics characters in its stable, I wondered if there was any possibility that IPC might get back into comics publishing. Andrew, however, feels it’s highly unlikely — and feels comics, generally, will never command the kind of audiences they once did.

“My personal view — and I say this as an absolute comic book obsessive who’ll spend hours talking about Superman Red/Superman Blue, debating Mockingbird’s true identity in DC’s The Secret Six and bemoaning the fact that my hero Steve Ditko doesn’t get more public recognition for his co-creation of (and huge contribution to) Spider-Man – is that it’s all about evolution.

“Today, kids have endless hours of multi-channel TV on demand,” he points out, and bedrooms stuffed full of elaborate computer games. Who needs the comic book format in the multimedia, instant-communication internet era? I think that comic books will always exist in some form, just as books always will, but I just do not believe that they will make a mass-market comeback on the UK newsstand.

“The whole politics of UK newsstand sale is set against weekly comics,” he explains, “and loaded firmly in favour of mass-market magazines like the ones I publish for IPC Media.

“The thing is, I don’t see this as a bad thing,” he counters. “Comic book properties have achieved mass acceptance in ways that I could only have dreamed about when I was a kid. My eight-year-old son loves comic book characters and comic book narrative — thanks to Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man movies and Bruce Timm’s brilliant Warner Bros animated shows, but he rarely actually reads a comic book. And I’m his dad and there’s thousands of them lying around the house!

“IPC Media is out of the comics publishing business,” Sumner finishes, “and focused firmly on powerhouse magazine brands like Uncut, Nuts, Now, Marie Claire and a 100 others. The beauty of being part of the Time Warner family is exactly that we sit alongside DC and WildStorm Comics, who are the finest comics publishers in the world and the centre for Time Warner comics-publishing expertise.

“We’re happy to license our prized comics characters to WildStorm and Titan,” Andrew smiles, “safe in the knowledge that they can do a better job than we ever could.

“Trust me, when you read Albion #1 or pick up the first Spider hardcover, you’ll see what I mean. They’re both fantastic pieces of work!”

IN OTHER UK COMICS NEWS…

— Top British comic weekly The Beano had its entire 200,000 print run pulped last week, after its management felt a strip satirising French soccer star and Arsenal striker Thierry Henry being sent off and saying “Time to va-va-voom”, could have caused offence to the player. (“Va-va-voom” is the phrase featured in Thierry Henry’s TV spots for the Renault Clio, a phrase that has since been added to the Oxford English Dictionary)

The Beano has had fun at the expense of Prime Minister Tony Blair in the past, but apparently soccer stars are another matter altogether. The whole saga seems a bit rum to me — after all, there are laws protecting the use of caricature in the UK going back several centuries. If the Beano’s management were that worried, why didn’t they send a copy of the strip to Henry’s agent first? One comics publisher described the whole thing as “gutless”…

Still, there’s some good news for DC Thomson’s comics editors in the past couple of weeks: a recent revamp of Beano stablemate The Dandy has apparently resuled in a 50 percent jump in sales.

— Watch out for Event Horizon Volume One, due for a May release and featuring a wealth of British comics talent. The anthology title, which will be launched at the UK Comic Expo in May (top guest at that is J. Michael Straczynski) includes contributions from Liam Sharp (The Possessed, Spawn: the Dark Ages, The Hulk), Ashley Wood (Popbot), and Steve Niles (30 Days of Night). Chris Weston (Ministry of Space, The Filth), Dan Wickline, Kody Chamberlain, Gary Erskine and other established comic reprobates will all be making their own contributions. Web Link: www.mamtor.com

 

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John Freeman

The founder of downthetubes, John describes himself as is a "freelance comics operative", working as an editor, as Creative Consultant on the Dan Dare audio adventures for B7 Media, and on promotional work for the Lakes International Comic Art Festival. John has worked in British comics publishing for over 30 years. His credits include editor of titles such as Doctor Who Magazine at Marvel UK and Star Trek Magazine and Babylon 5 Magazine at Titan Magazines. He also edited STRIP Magazine and edited several audio comics for ROK Comics, including Team M.O.B.I.L.E. and The Beatles Story. He has also edited several comic collections, including volumes of “Charley’s War and “Dan Dare” for Tian Books. He’s the writer of “Crucible”, a creator-owned project with 2000AD artist Smuzz, published on Tapastic; and “Death Duty” and “Skow Dogs” with Dave Hailwood for digital comic 100% Biodegradable.

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