Dundee lecturer Chris Murray investigates “The British Superhero” (and a Marvelman book you should read, too)

The British Superhero by Chris MurrayWe’re not entirely sure how The British Superhero by the University of Dundee’s Chris Murray slipped under our radar when the University of Mississippi Press published it back in 2017, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t plug it now, after downthetubes reader Norman Boyd drew it to our attention. It also gives a chance to plug another fascinating guide to a single British hero – Marvelman – by Pádraig Ó Méalóid.

Chris Murray’s book reveals the largely unknown and rather surprising history of the British superhero – to inquiring minds outside the British comics community, any way. American comic fans might think Britain didn’t have its own superheroes, but Murray demonstrates that there were a great many – and that they were often used as a way to comment on the relationship between Britain and America.

Sometimes they emulated the style of American comics, but they also frequently became sites of resistance to perceived American political and cultural hegemony, drawing upon satire and parody as a means of critique.

The British Superhero by Chris MurrayThe British Superhero by Chris Murray

In The British Superhero, Murray illustrates that the superhero genre is a blend of several influences and that in British comics, these influences are quite different from those in America, resulting in some contrasting approaches to the figure of the superhero. He identifies the origins of the superhero and supervillain in nineteenth-century popular culture such as the penny dreadfuls and boy’s weeklies and in science fiction writing of the 1920s and 1930s.

From the emergence of British superheroes in the 1940s, the advent of “fake” American comics, and the reformatting of reprinted material to the British Invasion of the 1980s, and the pivotal roles in American superhero comics and film production held by British artists today, this book sets out to challenge views about British superheroes and the comics’ creators who fashioned them.

Murray brings to light a gallery of such comics heroes as the Amazing Mr X, Powerman, Streamline, Captain Zenith, Electroman, Mr Apollo, Masterman, Captain Universe, Marvelman, Kelly’s Eye, the Steel Claw, the Purple Hood, Captain Britain, Supercats, Bananaman, Paradax, Jack Staff and SuperBob.

He also reminds us of the significance of many such creators and artists as Len Fullerton, Jock McCail, Jack Glass, Denis Gifford, Bob Monkhouse, Dennis M. Reader, Mick Anglo, Brendan McCarthy, Alan Moore, Grant Morrison, Dave Gibbons, and Mark Millar.

Chris is senior lecturer in comics studies at the University of Dundee and director of the Scottish Centre for Comics Studies. He’s also the author of Champions of the Oppressed: Superhero Comics, Popular Culture, and Propaganda in America during World War II and editor of UniVerse Comics, coeditor of Studies in Comics (Intellect), and co-organiser of the International Comics and Graphic Novel conference.

If this book tickles your fancy, then we’d be remiss not to use this belated plug for The British Superhero to remind you about the much more recently-released Poisoned Chalice, a terrific book by Pádraig Ó Méalóid, which offers a terrific history of British superhero, Marvelman.

The comic character Marvelman (and Miracleman) has a fascinating – and probably unique – history in the field of comics. His extended origin goes all the way back to the very beginnings of the American superhero comics industry, and it seems likely that his ongoing story will stretch on well into the future. It involves some of the biggest names in comics. It’s a story of good versus evil, of heroes and villains, and of any number of acts of plagiarism and casual breaches of copyright.

Poisoned Chalice wades into one of the strangest and thorniest knots of all of comics: the history of Marvel/Miracleman and still unsolved question of who owns this character. It’s a story that touches on many of the most remarkable personalities in the comics industry – Alan Moore, Neil Gaiman, Todd McFarlane, Joe Quesada and more – and one of the most fascinating in the medium.

The story of Marvelman touches on the darker places of comics history, springing from the prehistory where greed ruled the day; it’s a complex tale that others have attempted to untangle, but as noted in the title’s promotional materials, there has never been as thorough or as meticulous a study of it as this book.

I concur with that, having finally had a chance to read it over the Christmas break – this is an exhaustive (but far from exhausting) tome, probing dark corners of both the British and US comics industry, well worth a read.

The British Superhero by Chris Murray is available through all good bookshops and from Amazon here

Poisoned Chalice by Pádraig Ó Méalóid is available as both eBook and printed edition from Amazon

With thanks to Norman Boyd

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