With Marvel’s new Secret Wars on sale now in all good comic shops, we thought we’d take the opportunity you back to 1985 – and Marvel UK’s reprint of the original Secret Wars comic, which included an originated two-page comedy strip in its early issues lampooning some of the company’s most cherished superheroes. Our investigations have unearthed some surprises along the way.
The two-page strip centred on a monster lurking in Marvel UK’s Bayswater offices at Redan Place, who would emerge at night and draw bizarre versions of the characters in Secret Wars such as Thor, Captain America and Spider-Man, before the staff could capture him. The monster was never shown in full in the strip, and the Marvel UK team challenged readers to draw him.
Week by week, the Marvel UK staffers would try and catch or at least stop the ‘Secret Artist’ from carrying out its work – and, week by week, they would fail and the caricatures would get progressively stranger!
Written then Marvel UK editor Ian Rimmer, the strip’s art was actually the work of two artists. Future 2000AD artist Simon Jacob drew the comic strip page, while Richard Green – now better known for his work on a huge number of advertising campaigns for companies such as Volkswgen and Billingtons – drew the very non-Marvel like caricatures of the superheroes that inspired the strip.
“I was just a kid at school who had submitted some caricatures of Arnie’s [Arnold Schwarzenegger] Conan to the reader’s art section of Marvel UK’s Conan comic,” Richard recalls, “and I got the call from Marvel to ask if I fancied doing the same thing for the Marvel heroes.”
“The whole thing began when we received several unsolicited, full page black and white images of Marvel’s super hero characters drawn in caricature style from Richard,” Ian Rimmer expands. “We thought they were funny and quirkily detailed. Effectively caricatures of drawn characters, they stood out from the many reader submissions we received – but we were unsure if we were ever going to be able to print those images, as they really needed a full page each to be properly appreciated.
“However, roughly around the same period, we got the go ahead to produce a Marvel UK reprint version of Marvel’s Secret Wars.
At the time, the format for such titles was part colour, part black and white. This presented a problem, in that we had a cover and page two (which I always liked to keep as an introduction/contents page) in colour, followed I think by four pages of black and white material. That meant that if we began the strip on Page Three, each episode would begin in black and white only, something I didn’t feel was satisfactory.
“We solved that problem by not beginning the strip until the next batch of colour pages, so the strip itself always began with a run of colour pages. However, that left us with a number of black and white pages to fill before the Secret Wars strip began…
“As Richard’s illustrations were of characters largely involved in the Secret Wars storyline, we at last had an opportunity to use them. Necessity being the mother of invention, we then concocted the idea that they were drawn by some strange creature lurking in the air conditioning ducts of Marvel UK’s offices. (This was a bit of an in-house gag in itself, being as those Redan offices had no air conditioning at all, and we were constantly plagued by odours from the nearby curry house when they were brewing up. I think this even got obliquely referenced in one of the ‘Secret Artist’ scripts.)”
“It was beyond thrilling to be called down to ‘that London’, to talk to them about the project at their office in Redan Place,” says Richard. “I think I was about 16 at the time so some of them do make me cringe now when I see them but it’s still one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I still have quite a few of the originals.”
“We had a tie-in with a Secret Artist working on the Secret Wars title,” Ian continues, “and, developing the conceit, we then decided to introduce each piece of art with a page of black and white comic strip showing how that particular issue’s art came to be discovered. This, of course, gave us two of the black and white pages we needed to fill before the Secret Wars strip itself began.
“The scripts for these pages of comic strip were written in-house as part of editorial, to help convince Robert Sutherland (Marvel UK’s Managing Director at the time – and semi-portrayed as Big Boss Bert in the strip) to grant approval to the whole idea.
“I’m pretty sure I wrote most if not all of the strips, though it is possible John Tomlinson, Richard Starkings and/or Simon Furman were involved too. They would certainly have contributed ideas at some point. The two Marvel staff members in the strip – Ron and Don from Islington – were not based on any staff members, though I did wear glasses a bit like Don’s.
“We also made sure the Secret Artist was only ever partially glimpsed in the strip because we wanted to invite readers to send in submissions of what they thought this creature actually looked like. We offered a cash prize to anyone who got close, while throwing out further clues and hints in the various strips, such as revealing that the mystery art-bod in fact had three arms and hands. Printing the best submissions gave us a little more feature material to help fill up those black and white pages.
“The artist on the strip page was Simon Jacob, who went on to far bigger and greater things. Mostly likely, this was one of his first regular jobs in comics, probably for very poor pay, but at least it was somewhere to cut his teeth so to speak.”
“To be honest, I remember very little about it myself (particularly that there was more than one),” says Simon. “I am amazed anyone else does!”
A stunning character designer today, Simon is probably best known to downthetubes readers as the artists on the 2000AD strip “Armoured Gideon”, which first appeared in Prog 670 back in 1990 – written by former Marvel UK staffer and now Eaglemoss editor John Tomlinson. Gideon was a massive metal behemoth, created by “The Silent Ones” to prevent beings escaping “The Edge”, a dimension parallel to ours housing all manner of infernal beasts.
“As I recall, ‘Secret Artist’ came off the back of a fan-art strip (called ‘Disenchantment‘) I got into the amatuer ‘showcase’ feature in the Mighty World of Marvel in the mid 1980s,” Simon tells us, “much better remembered as the original home of the Alan Moore/Alan Davis re-vamp of Captain Britain. My strip limped on into The Savage Sword of Conan for a couple of issues, I think.
“It was probably John Tomlinson working at Marvel UK in his pre-Tharg incarnation who wrote the ‘Secret Artist'” Simon suggests of the strip (it wasn’t – John suggests it was either Richard Starkings or Simon Furman), “a fairly wobbly device used as a premise to print some rather nifty but a bit un-Marvel caricatures of key characters (I’m afraid I don;t remember the artist).
“Back then I was working full time during the day and drawing at night (it looks like it, too!) an arrangement which continued well into my early days of contributing to 2000AD…
“I did get paid for the ‘Secret Artist’ (£10, I think) – and payment came on a very nifty cheques with Spider-Man and the Hulk emblazoned across it. I was dead impressed and thought the bank should have been more so when I cashed it!”
Simon is slowly getting back into drawing – you can view some of his stunning work on his DeviantArt page – and he tells us he’s drawing (slowly) a self published (probably web) strip. Sadly, the coloured “Armoured Gideon” has never been reprinted. “I guess it’s maybe a bit too rambling/ episodic/ eccentric to make any sense collected as a book,” he suggests, “although I’d be delighted to see it – well, some of it anyway!”
We hope Simon will be back in print with something appropriate to his unique and memorable style soon.
The ‘Secret Artist’ strip lasted in Secret Wars over the first sixteen issues before it was dropped.
“I’m not sure if the strip ran for 13 or 16 episodes,” says Ian. “I’ve rummaged deeply into the loft looking for old issues, but couldn’t put my hands on any. Exactly why it came to an end I can’t recall, but it may have been because the Secret Wars title might have changed format to full colour, as a number of Marvel UK’s publications were able to switch formats about that time. Being full colour, the main strip would not have needed to start much later in the publication, and the requirement for black and white ‘editorial’ pages would have disappeared.
“Alternatively, the Secret Artist strip might have been just squeezed out of the title because the back-up strips that appeared over the run of the Secret Wars and Secret Wars II title changed around quite a bit, and might have demanded extra space.
“Or it might have been that we just simply felt the gag had run its course and it was time to call a halt!”
Although the strip came to an end, a page of readers renditions of the “Secret Artist” featured in Issue 17, published in October 1985, with the winning entry by Simon Wyatt… the very same Mr Wyatt who is busy at present working on volumes Two and Three of Unbelievable, a terrific graphic novel series published by Markosia.
“I remember my friends Peter Rogers and Ian Sharman discussing the ‘Secret Artist’ competition a few years ago,” Simon tells me, “and I surprised them when they mentioned that they would have loved to have won it, by telling them it was me!”
“It’s an interesting curio from the mid-1980s at Marvel UK, then,” says Ian Rimmer, “which was (hopefully) fun while it lasted!”
• Simon Jacob’s DeviantArt page is at: http://shiantu.deviantart.com
• You can read a 2012 interview with Simon Jacob on Scotch Corner here where he talks about his work and his plans to get back into drawing comics
• Simon Wyatt is also on DeviantArt at http://swyattart.deviantart.com
• Blogger Bob Mitchell has more information on the “Secret Artist” strip here. We think that when Panini UK gets around to reproducing the new Secret Wars in their news stand superhero comics, they should revive the tradition – and perhaps ask Simon and Richard if they’d be up for the task. On better page rates, of course!
My thanks to Mike Collins, Richard Green, Simon Jacob, Ian Rimmer, John Tomlinson and Richard Starkings for their help compiling this feature