A more accurate title for this post is ‘The Secret World of Comics… As Exposed In The Pages Of Read ‘Em And Weep‘. It’s actually an adaptation of a talk I was invited to give recently at the Gibunco Gibraltar Literary Festival.
Authors invariably base their novels on their own experiences, following the golden rule – ‘write what you know about’ and my two novels Serial Killer and Goodnight, John-Boy, in the Read ‘Em And Weep series are no exception. They are dark comedies about popular culture in the 1970s and 1980s and their legacy today. They draw heavily on that golden age of comics when comics such as 2000 AD could sell an astonishing 200,000 copies a week. But what went on behind the scenes in the world of comic publishing at that time was often stranger than fiction.
In the late 1970s, there must have been some twenty or more adventure comics for boys and girls. But some of them were so over the top and so bad they were inadvertently very funny, even though they were written dead straight.
For example, Bunty ran a story called Pogo Stick Patsy about a girl in World War Two. She is living in German occupied Poland with her rocket scientist father. He hides the plans for a secret formula in her pogo stick and she has to pogo her way across Nazi Europe to France. There, a British light plane is waiting to pick her up. But as the plane takes off, a wing support strut breaks off, and it looks like the aircraft will crash. But plucky Patsy leans out of the cockpit and uses her pogo stick to replace it and save the day.
Every imaginable disability was also featured in girls’ comics. Thus in Jinty there was the Blind Ballerina.
Then, having exhausted all the obvious possibilities, like blind ballerinas and blind swimmers, Tammy ran a story about a blind tennis player called Becky Never Saw the Ball. Not written by me, I hasten to add! Although I did write extensively for Tammy, Sandie, Pink, Jinty, Girl and Misty. At this time, there was little control or censorship in comics. We were largely left to get on with it. Provided our stories were popular with the readers, we had almost unlimited creative freedom. We could write what we liked as long as it sold at the box office and made money for the publishers. So that freedom, for me, was a fantastic opportunity to write popular but very subversive fiction in a way that would never be allowed by any text publisher –particularly today, where we live in a very controlled and censored age. As a result, I created Action and 2000 AD, both of which are well known for their ‘punk’ style. But I loved those ridiculous stories that came out of comics at this time. They were perfect for satire, as Viz has demonstrated. So my colleague, artist Kevin O’Neill and I wrote a dark TV sitcom about them, which was initially accepted by a BBC TV producer but then turned down by his boss as being ‘too niche’. I then decided to novelise the material, which allowed me to think a great deal about the characters and to explore their background. This led to a four-novel saga of mystery and murder: Read ‘Em And Weep, of which two volumes Serial Killer and Goodnight, John-Boy have been published so far. I’m currently working on the third: TheGrim Reader. Serial Killer features a fictional version of Battle called Blitzkrieg! Goodnight, John-Boy features a fictional Action called Aaagh! The Grim Reader features Space Warp, inspired by 2000AD. And the final volume will feature Raven, inspired by Misty. This series takes you behind the scenes, as never before, so you can see what it was really like in that era. Let me start with a scene from Serial Killer to introduce you to the world. The protagonist is comic editor and writer, Dave Maudling. He’s in his mid-twenties, a Peter Pan figure, a kind of tragic clown, who is emotionally shut down. So he doesn’t really understand girls’ comics, which – whatever their faults – are all about emotion. So here he is trying to impress girls’ comic editor Joy Glass with his story proposals. He’s in a pitch meeting with her and Joy is responding to his latest story proposal:
‘Dave, I think a blind javelin thrower is stretching credibility too far. Una Never Saw the Umpire didn’t really work for me….Anyhow … it was an improvement on your previous proposal: My Dead Little Pony…‘I need realistic stories, Dave, relevant to girls’ lives in the 1970s. Hard-hitting. Social realism. Showing the kind of Britain we’re living in today.’ ‘You mean less Ken Barlow, more Ken Loach?’ ‘Yes. If you like.’‘Then I think I’ve got just the story for you, Joy. How does this sound? Tower Block Tessa. She’s homeless and sleeps in the lift. Her mother’s a bag lady and her father lives in a burnt-out car. She wants to be an Olympic swimmer. So she’s training in the water tank on the 30th floor. Maybe she has a disability, too, and is using her crutch to sweep aside the dead pigeons. She could find her alcoholic mother in the tank as well.’ Dave saw Joy’s wide-eyed face. ‘I’m not reaching you. Too over the top? Not enough? Give me some guidance here.’
Dave is not just emotionally shut down. At the beginning of the saga he also actively dislikes his young readers. This was an attitude that was sadly commonplace amongst staff on comics at that time. And that’s the true reason that British comics, apart from 2000 AD, have died and why you’ll see very few on the newsstands today. And also why 2000 AD lost much of its original vast circulation. It was because so many Thargs (as 2000 AD editors are known) and writers wanted to appeal to older, ‘cooler’ fans, or produce ‘prestigious’ graphic novels, or work for American comics, simply using the comic as a stepping-stone. Most genuinely believed this was the future of comics, when in fact it was the death of comics. The result was that 2000 AD progressively lost touch with the core age group of adventure comics: 9- to 14-year-olds. I remember one reader writing in to say that he gave up reading 2000 AD when he was around 19, because he didn’t feel smart enough or cool enough for it anymore. Some wrote similar sarcastic or protesting letters of goodbye to the Galaxy’s Greatest Comic. Others simply voted with their feet. Consequently, this caused a drop in 2000 AD’s circulation from which it has never entirely recovered. Other comics that were around at that time died because they weren’t that good anymore, primarily because their editorial staff wanted to get out of comics and they didn’t care that their writers were just hacking out scripts. However, many of my peers would tell you the demise of comics is all down to computer games, changing times and demographics. But that’s simply not true. In France, comic books for 9- to 14-year-olds are as popular as ever. And Commando comics in Britain still have a devoted following. W.I.T.C.H. is an international newsstand hit for girls. Manga for girls is equally popular in the UK. That audience is still potentially out there. British comics lost their readership because so many in our industry either didn’t understand, didn’t like, or lost touch with the audience for whom comics were originally intended. So their efforts would be patronising, empty, old-fashioned, middle-class, or jumbled and lacking a theme. The 9-14 age group, male and female, is far, far tougher to write for than older, supposedly more ‘sophisticated’ age groups, which is why I personally prefer it. I love the challenge of that younger, critical audience. And, actually, there is a way to write across the age groups. If you look at Charley’s War, you’ll see it can be read by any age group from any social background, which is why it still sells well to this day, nationally and internationally. So Kevin and I used the idea of editors disliking the readers for our character Dave. We boosted that hostility we were both well aware of, and created a kind of W.C. Fields character who hated kids. So here is Dave, editor of The Spanker, talking to his assistant editor Greg. Like many of their real life counterparts at the time, they both desperately want to get out of comics. And by the way: Greg’s final line is a direct quote from one of my editorial colleagues at the time.
Greg looked up from reading the pages of The Caning Commando, The Spanker’s number one story.
‘Dave, what are we doing …? Two grown men editing The Caning Commando. It’s embarrassing.’‘What’s embarrassing?’ ‘A teacher with a cane who single-handedly defeats the Germans?’ ‘You forget we won the war, Greg. So we have a right to cane them.’ ‘There must be something we can do to improve it.’Dave shook his head.‘Changing the Major’s story requires effort, which I’m not prepared to make and our readers are not prepared to read. We could shuffle the pages in any order and they wouldn’t notice, as long as there’s caning and there’s Germans.’ Greg steeled himself to look at the story again, shuddered, and shook his head sorrowfully. ‘I’m just praying I can find a publisher for my novel.’ ‘Greg, you’ve only got one unpublished novel. I’ve lined my loft with mine. I’m sorry to say you look like a lifer to me. You have a comic pallor. You’re here for the long stretch. Come to terms with your sentence. It’s always best.’ ‘But we’re writers,’ Greg insisted. ‘We’ve got to keep trying.’ Dave sucked on his liquorice pipe, trying to extract imaginary smoke from the pink embers in the bowl. ‘But what is a writer, Greg …?’ He nodded at their Imperial typewriters. ‘It’s a typist without prospects. Face it, we’re failures. In fact, we are over-qualified as failures.’ ‘Don’t you ever have dreams, Dave?’ ‘Wet dreams, once. But not anymore. I’m getting old.’ Dave smiled. ‘From now on, Greg, it’s a nice long slide towards the grave.’ He reflected on this for a moment and then added: ‘Actually, I’ll get to the cemetery twenty years ahead of our readers. They’ll have to endure two more decades of this shite.’ ‘I know what you mean …’ agreed Greg. ‘I never tell anyone I work in comics. I always say I’m in publishing.’‘I share your sense of shame. A chimpanzee would be ashamed of this job. At least they can organise a tea party. Our readers drink out of the teapot.’
Dave’s dislike of his young readers gets out of hand and that provides the inciting incident for the novels. Because he’s been secretly making some of their lives a misery for his own twisted amusement. Thus one reader, copying an incident Dave has written into the Caning Commando, tries submerging himself in the bath and breathing through the plughole! Consequently he loses his front teeth, which Dave thinks is hilarious. Once again there were real life editorial counterparts who reacted in a similar way to readers’ misfortunes. The inciting incident follows when the national newspapers get to hear about Dave’s dark behaviour. Barber, a ferocious journalist (‘The Demon Barber of Fleet Street’), is investigating this case and it looks like the game is up for Dave. All Dave’s various crimes will be revealed and he will go to prison. Unless he can lie or cheat his way out of trouble, which he’s rather good at. But, ultimately, this incident will be the start of Dave’s road to redemption. The media were constantly trashing comics, so this scene is actually very close to reality.
Inside the snug, there was no room to move and Barber and Dave – hunter and prey – were uncomfortably close. Barber swivelled a shielded green wall light round into Dave’s face to begin the interrogation. ‘I’ll make this short, but not painless.’ He continued eating his pub meal as he spoke. ‘I hope you don’t mind? I can eat and eviscerate at the same time.’ He didn’t wait for Dave’s approval. ‘So … you’re Dave Maudling, editor of … The Spanker?’ He lingered on the name, enunciating with relishDave nodded penitently. ‘You know my reputation?’ ‘You’re the most feared man in Fleet Street.’ ‘I broke the Profumo scandal. Christine. Mandy. Stephen. I knew them all.’ He raised a bushy eyebrow meaningfully. ‘Intimately. I made my excuses and …stayed.’ He smiled arrogantly, enjoying his little joke. Dave tried some light-hearted banter, hoping to keep things jokey and get on Barber’s good side. ‘Perhaps if we spanked Christine Keeler, I’d be in even more trouble?’ Barber ignored him. ‘Tell me about your comic for Borstal bum boys, Maudling. This Caning Commando individual who says, “I see Germany as one big arse that needs a colossal thrashing.” ’ ‘Well, it’s a fictional character. And a fictional arse.’ ‘Do you now plan to stop peddling this filth to our nation’s children?’ ‘That’s not up to me. I’m only obeying orders.’ Dave quickly realised how unfortunate that sounded. ‘I mean –’ Barber recited his copy to himself; he never wrote anything down. ‘A spokesman for The Spanker said “We intend to carry on peddling this filth.” All in bold.’ ‘I didn’t say that,’ protested Dave. ‘So now an innocent young boy has been cruelly injured, are you satisfied?’ ‘Of course not.’ ‘ “We aren’t satisfied with just one child being injured,” the spokesman added. Exclamation mark.’ Barber smiled to himself. ‘This is good.’ ‘I didn’t say … I never … It’s meant to be a funny war story, not The Diary of Anne Frank,’ protested Dave.‘ “At least our comic is funnier than The Diary of Anne Frank” added the heartless editor. Full stop.’ ‘Could that be “Handsome, heartless Editor”?’ suggested Dave, trying to make the best of his impending destruction.
From this point on in the series, Dave starts to change. He stops being complacent and produces comics that actually have something important to say. He creates similar fictional comics to the real life Action and 2000 AD, producing their equivalent in Aaagh! and Space Warp. Increasingly today, Action and 2000 AD are described as ‘punk’ and people often ask all of us involved: ‘Were we punks ourselves? Were we influenced by punk?’ Because 1976 and 1977 was the birth of punk – so we were undoubtedly affected by it. Judge Dredd artist Mike McMahon was probably the only one who dressed like a punk and he was possibly at the Sex Pistols first gig, which could have been at his art college. I keep meaning to check with him. And I think Judge Dredd artist Brendan McCarthy was proto-punk. He went on to be co-writer and designer on the brilliant and very punk Mad Max Fury Road.Aaagh! like Action is loathed by the media for its very early punk attitudes. So this final scene is partly inspired by a similar real life event where TV interviewer Frank Bough actually tore up a copy of Action on BBC Nationwide. We join Dave in a similar sequence as he’s being interviewed on live television by Quentin Cowley of Newshound. Quentin prefers the middle-class educational magazine Homework to the comic of the streets Aaagh!
Quentinheld up the number one issue of Homework. The free gift was still attached to the front: a plastic protractor. There were cover lines on the magazine. ‘Make your own school report. How to revise over Christmas.’‘Let’scompare Aaagh!,’ said Quentin, ‘with a periodical that reinforced moral values. This is the number one issue of Homework that I swopped with a young viewer for a Newshound reporter’s clipboard.’Quentin went through its glossy pages. ‘A magazine every responsible parent recommended. It was rich in mentally nourishing ideas.’ He carefully enunciated every word, as if he was talking to the deaf. ‘A paper university.’‘I remember it well.’ said Dave. “Treasure Island in Latin begins inside.”’[…]Quentin picked up the copy of Aaagh! again. ‘It compares with this appalling, illiterate, juvenile-delinquent comic that has been pumping out its vile content, like raw sewage, onto the children of Britain.’‘Asimple “I don’t like it” would suﬃce,’ said Dave.Quentin flicked through the comic and stopped at an image of a furious Black Hammer attacking racist thugs on the terraces. ‘A comic that actually encourages soccer hooliganism,’ he announced.That was it. Criticizing the Black Hammer. His hero. Dave bit through his liquorice pipe.Quentin held Aaagh! up for the cameras. ‘On behalf of all responsible parents, I feel a duty to do this to your disgraceful publication.’ He tore Aaagh! in half.‘I see,’ said Dave.He picked up the copy of Homework. ‘On behalf of the bored kids of Britain, I’d like to do this.’To Quentin’s horror, he ripped it in half. ‘Goodbye, “Boyhood of Patrick Moore”. Goodbye, “Cecil Rhodes, Africa’s Savior.” Goodbye, “Cutaway of a stapler”.’…Dave quoted imaginary scenes from Homework as he continued to rip it to pieces. ‘Goodbye “Your Royal Betters”… “How the Bible was brought to hotels – a drawer-by-drawer guide”… “Africa: lining your pockets made easy. How to strip-mine a country. What every boy should know.”’‘You ignorant oaf!’ snarled a livid Quentin and took a savage swing at Dave.
That’s where I’ll leave Dave’s story for now. In Book 3, The Grim Reader, which I’ll be writing shortly, he goes on to create Space Warp, a fictional version of the original 2000 AD. I found I was as passionate as ever about the audience and style of story, so I’ve already worked out most of its stories and heroes! I couldn’t stop! You’ll be pleased to know they include robots, sf cops, future war, dinosaurs, mutants and super-powered secret agents. They have much in common with the original 2000 AD, but they are sufficiently different to stand alone and in their own right. It’s been a blast working out an sf comic the second time around. For instance, some of the things I didn’t get quite right first time around, I’ve sorted out this time. I hope to start on the novel very shortly. Could Space Warp actually put the clock back? Probably not – for all the reasons I’ve given. Because no one wants to cater for 9 – 14 year-olds anymore and thus comics have been taken away from their true audience. The usual trite and complacent excuses would be brought out to say why it’s simply not possible to originate such a comic anymore. Often by people who contributed significantly to their demise… But Space Warp might, at least, give us all food for thought and maybe provide a starting point for a way forward. Let’s see.