In the 1980s, British comics creators quickly conquered the American comics market. The story of how writers like Alan Moore, Mark Millar, Grant Morrison, Alan Grant and Neil Gaiman revolutionised the output of the US comics machinery by injecting their inventive language, mature themes and British sensibility is now a familiar one. Less commonly looked at, however, is the creative environment from which these writers arrived. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, profound socio-cultural shifts in Britain were greatly changing the landscape of the domestic comics market. It was these changes which brought new voices to the fore; often the very same voices that would send shockwaves through the halls of Marvel and DC only a few years later.
The rise of British influence on US comics was so deep and so swift that it was given the title “the British invasion”, borrowing the term long used to describe the assault by UK pop bands on the American charts in the mid-‘60s, led by the Beatles. Now, that same term will be used as a title for this series of blogs on the history and the present reality of the uniquely British comics experience.
The character of today’s UK comics environment can be traced directly back to the origins of the British invaders in the comics of the late 1970s. The weekly anthology 2000 AD, founded in 1977 by “godfather of British comics” Pat Mills and Judge Dredd co-creator John Wagner, remains at the epicentre of that environment. Having now published over 1,700 issues, 2000 AD followed on from crucial precursor publications including war anthology Battle Picture Weekly and Action, which lasted only from February to October 1976 and was as controversial as it was short-lived.
This was an explosively active era in British comics development. New anthologies appeared, folded or were absorbed into others in quick succession. Besides giving the titans of today’s industry their first outings, this hectic atmosphere fostered the creation of some hugely innovative strips. The star of Action, for example, was the strip “Hookjaw”, which was widely seen as a cynical cash-in following on from the 1975 film Jaws but which used its insatiable shark protagonist to tap into the growing environmental concerns of the time.
When 2000 AD was formed in 1977 it was against the backdrop of the new counterculture sweeping the UK at the time. Just as punk was challenging the status quo of monarchy, conformity and party politics, Judge Dredd was policing a fascist far-future urban sprawl which for decades has allowed 2000 AD to involve itself in intelligent—if ultraviolent—social commentary. That publication has outlasted many rivals and subsidiaries, for example Warrior, a similar anthology which ran from 1982 to 1985 and which collapsed before it could complete Alan Moore and David Lloyd’s classic V For Vendetta.
2000 AD has remained the primary organ from which British creators have graduated to the American market; almost all of the “British invaders” had contributed to it at some point, often in the series of imaginative one-offs known as “Tharg’s Future Shocks”, on which Alan Moore was a regular writer. Today, whilst the British comics scene may no longer be experiencing the heady excitement of its golden era, the ground remains fertile. 2000 AD, its sister publication the
Judge Dredd Megazine, and numerous other large, small and fan print titles continue on. Most recently, Mark Millar has launched his brand new monthly anthology CLiNT, in which the sequel to his series Kick-Ass is running and to which British TV personalities Frankie Boyle and Jonathan Ross have contributed their first comics writing.
By looking at many facets of that uniquely British comics experience, “British Invasion” will seek to show how and why British comics, characters and their creators have had – and continue to have – such a tremendous significance to the comics and the cultural mainstream of the UK and the outside world.