In Review: The Mighty One My Life Inside The Nerve Centre

The Mighty One Book Cover

The Book: Steve MacManus, the editor of 2000AD during the 1980s, lifts the lid on how the UK’s most important comic came into existence and his extraordinary role in shaping it into a industry revolutionising icon.

In 1973, a twenty-year-old MacManus joined Fleetway Publications as a sub-editor on UK adventure title Valiant, a title then selling 100,000 copies every week. Six years later, he took charge of the company’s most celebrated weekly, 2000AD, shepherding it through its “Golden Age” as he commissioned numerous hit series such as “The Ballad of Halo Jones”, “Sláine”, “Rogue Trooper”, “Nemesis the Warlock” and more. For many, he remains the definitive editor of the multi-award-winning SF anthology.

Now, in this warm and witty memoir, MacManus lifts the lid on the fiercely creative environment that was British comics in the 1970s and ‘80s – from Battle and Action to the stellar rise of 2000AD and Judge Dredd, he details the personalities at play and the corporate politics and deadline battles he and others engaged in on a daily basis. With keen insight, MacManus reveals how 2000AD defined comics for a generation and became a global phenomenon.

Legend had it that Leo [Baxendale] had once come into the office with a brown parcel in which, it was assumed, was his latest artwork. But inside was merely a pair of corduroy trousers. ‘Oh dear,’ he is said to have announced, ‘I must have sent the artwork to the dry cleaners!’

The Review: I know that I have had several conversations with fellow fans about how we need to persuade the editors and backroom boys to put down in words their experiences within their respective comic careers before time robs us of their company and their knowledge. And this book is a perfect example of why we need more editors to do so.

Plus, any book which includes the line “If in doubt, put a wet dog on the front cover” as a straight line deserves to be a success. (We’ve picked out just a few gems from the book to scatter through this review, below).

"Action" man Steve MacManus
“Action” man Steve MacManus in the 1970s

The Mighty One ranges from Steve MacManus’ nervous start as a 20-year-old in 1973 as a sub editor on Valiant to his final years as the 2000AD Group Editor. Although I suspect that it will be his time as “Action Man” and his time on 2000AD that will prove the main selling point for this book.

Names are dropped like confetti throughout the book, such as writers Pat Mills and John Wagner, Battle editor David Hunt, artists Brian Bolland, Dave Gibbons and Steve Dillon, just to name a few. To discover that Titan Entertainment Group co-owner Nick Landau was once a sub-editor at Battle is just a gem that is priceless beyond measure for this fan of British comics and makes the book worth its cover price alone.

For any comic fan that wants to know about the process of comic creation, then it is hard to find a better description of it than Steve’s clear and simple walkthrough of the methodology that had to be worked through week in and week out.

The Mighty One is simply crammed with fascinating detail about the day to day running and trials and tribulations behind the scenes on some of Brtain’s best-loved boys’ comics of the 1970s and 80s – Valiant, Action, Battle, Starlord, and 2000AD – a memoir that  includes insights into the origins of many early strips on those titles, plenty of candid comment, how the comics industry was rapidly changing during the 1980s and much more. There’s also an enjoyable section of images to accompany the text, including several of Steve as “Action” Man.

In short, it’s a rollicking good read. Several parts had me in stitches, others had me in awe as Steve reeled off the names of the talented people he had worked with. But best of all, you’ll share in the pride he has at having been part of such an amazingly creative time.

One of the most powerful sections of the book actually covers his time after 2000AD, when Steve went walkabout in the United States after his tenure as The Mighty One. You can really feel how much the toll of creating a comic that was such an iconic piece of the cultural landscape had taken on him.

In case you hadn’t guessed… I love this book. It’s well worth some of your hard-earned Galactic Groats.

Oh, and Steve, you should have called Paula Yates over… and if you want to know why, then buy the book!

The Mighty One My Life Inside The Nerve Centre will be available in print from 8th September 2016 from all good book shops, Amazon, and comic book shops via Diamond

• It’s also available in digital from the 2000 AD webshop2000 AD iPad app and 2000 AD Android app

Read Steve MacManus’ feature on 2000AD’s many unsolicited submissions, right here on downthetubes

• Follow Steve MacManus on Twitter @mac_1

• Steve talks about the origins of The Mighty One project here on Bear Alley

Some Choice Quotes from “The Mighty One”

On artist Eric Bradbury –

I was told Eric Bradbury had been an air-gunner on Wellington bombers. Situated alone at the rear of the plane, the gunner’s job was to scan the night, searching anxiously for the deathly shape of an enemy night fighter. I can only assume it was these long missions spent peering into the dark that influenced Eric’s unique style.

On Subbing – 

“The real skill in subbing was to tweak the dialogue to match the dramatic ‘beat’ of the pictures so that the story flowed seamlessly for the reader, as if they were watching a film.”

The end of Action – 

“…I watched in growing embarrassment as the interviewer tore the publisher to shreds. How could it ever have come to this? How could all the hard work and creativity that had been poured into Action end in this awful, teatime show trial, beamed live into every UK household?”

On Free Gifts – 

As its free gift for Prog 1, 2000AD got handed a piece of red plastic in the shape of a modern day no-entry sign. In response to uncomprehending stares, the free-gift department airily described it as a flying disc. An ebullient man with a handlebar moustache, who I assumed had been a fighter pilot in the war, ran the department. Fair enough, but it was a source of some ire among the young dudes in editorial that his free-gift cupboard contained samples from a bygone age; old-fashioned gadgets that had no chance whatsoever of appealing to the more discerning youth of the ’70s.

On Dan Dare in 2000AD –

I know a huge amount of effort was put into reviving this ’50s icon, but Dare and his adventures just didn’t seem to fit in the dystopian futures that were on the menu in 2000AD. Dare simply couldn’t live with the gritty realism of the other strips in issue one, despite a very fancy spaceship and some wonderful artwork by Italian maestro Massimo Belardinelli.

On Starlord

Kelvin Gosnell’s vision for Starlord embraced all that was good about Omni and Metal Hurlant: vibrant science-fiction and science-fantasy comic strips would feature alongside features relevant to the genre. In short, an aspirational read for the younger reader and a more grown-up read for the older reader (who otherwise might have been thinking of giving up his weekly comic and saving up for a motorbike instead).

…. However, when I joined Starlord I discovered that the carefully laid plans for the title’s launch were in disarray. Out of the blue, management had decreed that the frequency should be weekly, not monthly. This single change more or less ruined the title’s chances of establishing itself as a serious science-fiction magazine.

On Tornado

I was surprised when I heard that management wanted to publish such a title. Hadn’t we seen that anthology comics were a thing of the past? Didn’t they get it that genre-specific, niche titles were where the market was going?

On Working in Comics –

‘DO YOU DRAW the bubbles?’ This was a common question at parties when I said I worked in comics. There was no reason to expect that someone from outside the industry would know how a comic was put together but the half stifled titter that often accompanied the question was always aggravating.

On the decline of comic sales in the 1980s –

… The existing model of publishing comics for children was looking decidedly dodgy. A flood of roleplaying games and adventure gaming books had now joined videogaming in the battle for prestige in the playground, not to mention the battle for pocket money. The next generation of readers was turning to different forms of entertainment, leaving comics publishers with ageing readerships.

 

Colin Noble

Colin Noble

A life-long comic fan specialising mainly in UK adventure comics. I do my best to support my passion for the comics of my youth, Commandos (still going!) and any small press that interest me.