Review by Luke Williams
Publisher: Rebellion/Treasury of British Comics
I have a confession. I’m unfamiliar with at least half of the characters that feature in this Special that draws on Rebellion’s huge archive of classic comic characters they now own. In addition, my experience with the remaining cast is via the seemingly endless supply of annuals passed to me and my brothers from a family friend, as gifts at Christmas, or bought from jumble sales and school fetes whilst growing up.
Until recently, I was completely unaware of “Johnny Future”, knew little of “The House Of Dollman” and almost diddly squat of “Thunderbolt the Avenger”. My only experience of “Mytek the Mighty” and “Cursitor Doom” is in the anomalous and occasionally maligned Action Special from the 1990s.
So, I’ll admit I’m not coming to this collection with the affection that other, older readers will have.
However, what did appeal was the appearance of “The Steel Claw” and “The Spider”. The Valiant, Lion and other Fleetway annuals that were stacked in my bedroom were studded with one-offs and reprints of the adventures of “The World’s Greatest Supervillain” and Louis Crandall’s adventures.
The Smash! 2020 Special is a well presented package, each of the strips accompanied by a one page profile providing a brief history of the strip and creator credits. The creator list on the Special is an impressive roster of established and upcoming talent, but the stories themselves are a mixed bag.
Both “Johnny Future” and “Thunderbolt the Avenger” are straight up, unsophisticated superhero origins / recaps. As homages to the characters’ heyday they are adequate, if you forget that 40 years have passed, but for me, Helen O’Hara and Anita Break’s scripts don’t engage and are formulaic.
The surprise appearance of Tom Raney on “Johnny Future” takes the art honours of the two strips where “Thunderbolt’s” Valentina Pinti’s art is a little stiff. Gary Caldwell and Jim Boswell supply subtle colour palettes respectively.
The appeal of “The Spider” and “The Steel Claw” lies in that they are both occasionally baddies, both verging on the creepy and disturbing, something sadly missing from these incarnations. Charlie Higson’s “The Steel Claw” script plays for laughs, set at New Year’s Eve 1999, evil organisations with camp acronyms for names with nefarious schemes for world domination. The gags and celebrity appearances are just a bit over egged and it all feels a bit too whacky, like Our Man Flint, with a red nose and oversized shoes. Charlie Adlard’s stark black and white art plays to the script and demonstrates great story telling chops.
The Spider’s career restart misses the mark with the titular character being too conventional; less the shadowy genius, more a cackling, verbose egomaniac. John McCrea’s art is dynamic and moody by turns, complemented by Bill Spicer’s colours.
Where creative teams do try to update the strips and play them straight, the results are reasonably successful. Suyi Davies Okungbowa and Anand Radhakrishnan take a stab at making a giant robotic ape contemporary in “Mytek the Mighty“. The art is occasionally ill defined, but it looks jolly nice, and has the feel of the 1990s Vertigo updates of 1950s and 1960s DC Comics characters.
“Cursitor Doom & Jason Hyde” brings a touch of the supernatural to the package: Maura McHugh’s plot doesn’t do much over its seven pages, but Andreas Butzbach supplies attractive, quirky, angular art.
Wrapping the book up is Simon Furman and Chris Weston’s take on the “The House of Dolmann”. Simon plays up the British eccentricity without turning it into a gritty reboot, whilst crafting a fun tale which tells you everything you need to know about the character without resorting to a retelling of his origin, or leaving us on cliffhanger. In a comic where all the art is of a high standard, Chris Weston takes top honours with beautiful work.
The biggest problem I have with the Treasury of British Comics Specials is that many of the stories aren’t written as stand alone strips. Often they seem more like teasers for ongoing strips. I’d argue a six or seven page one off adventure is a better sell than the first chapter to a longer story that may never happen.
Some of the strips also still feel anachronistic. A “Miracleman / Marvelman” gritty reimagining isn’t required, but some modernising wouldn’t have gone amiss.
I had high hopes for this book, but it’s a bit of an anticlimax, saved by some frankly astonishing art. The main failing here is that the quirkiness and eccentricity of some characters isn’t exploited to the full, so for me, it’s a missed opportunity.
The Thrill-Cast takes a look at three very British superheroes! Journalist and writer Helen O’Hara talks about her take on the origin story of the new Thunderbolt the Avenger and discusses the cultural impact of superheroes, before writer Rob Williams and artist John McCrea return to the Thrill-Cast to talk about reintroducing the ‘King of Crooks’, The Spider, and the different ways you can breath new life into classic characters. We’re then joined by journalist Abraham Riesman to take a deep-dive into Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell’s superbrat Zenith, examining its satire of superheroes and the comic book industry, taking the mickey out of Richard Branson and Morrison’s place as post-modernist prophet.
Dear reader, a review is an opinion, other opinions are available
Brought up on a diet of Commando, British Boys Annuals and Asterix, Lucas Williams’s day job limits his reading time. Luckily for everyone else this also restricts his writing time.